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Diaspora Minister Nachman Shai said in running to head Jewish Agency

Labor lawmaker’s portfolio would be transferred to Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar, appeasing the renegade lawmaker and solving question of Agency leadership after uproar last month

MK Nachman Shai attends a Knesset committee meeting, on November 13, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Then MK Nachman Shai attends a Knesset committee meeting, on November 13, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Government officials have been discussing selecting Diaspora Minister Nachman Shai to head the Jewish Agency and transferring his portfolio to Yisrael Beytenu lawmaker Eli Avidar, according to a Thursday report.

The move would solve two problems for the coalition by finding a suitable head for the Jewish Agency after a controversy erupted over the previous candidate, and by appeasing Avidar, a rebellious lawmaker who was dissatisfied with his government position.

Shai was interested in the Jewish Agency position and had begun talks with some relevant officials on the possibility of taking over as chairman, Maariv reported.

Shai’s move out of the government would weaken his Labor faction, however, and party leader Merav Michaeli would need to agree to a deal that included compensation. The details of such an agreement have not yet been worked out, Army Radio reported.

Shai would also need to be approved by a selection committee.

Avidar has served in Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party since 2019, but ties between the two soured in June when the lawmaker was not given a ministerial post.

Yisrael Beytenu MK Eli Avidar in the Knesset on April 29, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

On the day of the new government’s swearing-in that month, Avidar said he would no longer vote along party lines, retaliating after Liberman did not grant him his choice of ministerial post.

Though he later said he was committed to the government, Avidar proceeded to declare himself an “independent lawmaker,” removed the Yisrael Beytenu logo from his Facebook page, and reportedly threatened to vote against the coalition.

Following negotiations between Avidar and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office, a compromise was reached under which Avidar would be named minister in the Prime Minister’s Office in charge of strategic planning. He was supposed to be appointed intelligence minister once Yesh Atid’s Elazar Stern left the position to head the Jewish Agency.

The plan was thrown into disarray when Stern, the coalition’s pick for the position, withdrew his candidacy amid controversy over comments he made suggesting he had ignored anonymous complaints — possibly including sexual harassment claims — during his time as head of the IDF’s Manpower Directorate.

The Jewish Agency’s executive committee postponed the October 24 vote for the next chairman last month following the uproar. The new deadline for the coalition to submit a candidate has now been extended until November 17, while a vote to formally approve the candidate will be held around a month after that.

The Diaspora Ministry would be an upgrade for Avidar, but he still had eyes on the intelligence portfolio. Maariv reported there was a possibility Stern could become Diaspora Minister, and transfer the intelligence portfolio to Avidar.

The Egypt-born Avidar, 57, is a former Israeli diplomat, adviser to former prime minister Ariel Sharon, and past managing director of the Israel Diamond Institute and Israel Diamond Exchange. He was a prominent activist in the weekly protests against former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The previous head of the Jewish Agency, Isaac Herzog, was elected Israel’s president in June.

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