Will a PM choice for Jewish Agency head be nixed by nominating committee, again?

Intelligence Minister Elazar Stern appears to be the leading candidate to head the world’s largest Jewish nonprofit organization. But challenger Danny Danon may have a chance

Tal Schneider

Tal Schneider is a Political Correspondent at The Times of Israel

Elazar Stern of the Yesh Atid party attends a plenum session in the Knesset in Jerusalem, on July 6, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Elazar Stern of the Yesh Atid party attends a plenum session in the Knesset in Jerusalem, on July 6, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The election of Isaac Herzog as the 11th president of the State of Israel set off a political struggle over the appointment of his successor as chairman of the Jewish Agency.

Before 1948, the Jewish Agency was the central player in the establishment of the State of Israel, and in the early years of the state served a vital role in its development. Today it handles key aspects of immigration by Jews to Israel, and serves as a prime beneficiary of Diaspora donations to the Jewish state.

The organization spends — together with various groups that co-fund its programs, the largest of which is the Israeli government — over $370 million each year in Israel and around the Jewish world.

By tradition, the prime minister suggests a candidate to head the quasi-governmental organization — the world’s largest Jewish nonprofit organization — and the candidate is generally rubberstamped by the agency’s nominating committee and then by its board of governors.

To win the nomination to head the Jewish Agency, a candidate must receive the support of nine out of 10 members of the committee, led by World Zionist Organization chairman Yaakov Hagoel and including four other members of the WZO, three representatives from the Jewish Federations of North America, and two representatives from Keren Hayesod – United Israel Appeal.

The committee, whose members meet with all candidates, is scheduled to convene in the coming weeks and must pass the name of an approved candidate to the board of governors by mid-October. Though these meetings have not yet begun, there is already political agitation behind the scenes.

While the selection committee is not obligated to vote for the prime minister’s preferred candidate, it has only once rejected the premier’s pick — last time around, in 2018, when then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented Likud minister Yuval Steinitz as a candidate at the last minute before a vote on Herzog, then the only person in the race.

Now, some are wondering if the race is open this time as well.

The prime minister’s candidate is set to be Intelligence Minister Elazar Stern, but a handful of other prominent names — including former Likud MK and ambassador to the UN Danny Danon — have been mentioned for the job, and sources involved in the selection process told The Times of Israel that Jewish Agency leaders may be open to other options.

President Isaac Herzog speaks at a ceremony in central Israel on July 14, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

In addition to Stern and Danon, candidates who have been floated as possible replacements for Herzog include former Diaspora affairs minister Omer Yankelevich and Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum — either of whom, if chosen, would be the first woman to head the Jewish Agency.

Stern: A comfortable partner for US Jewry

As things currently stand, Stern would appear to have it in the bag, holding the backing of both Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who agreed to make the decision on the appointment together.

An Orthodox former IDF general, Stern entered the Knesset in 2013 with the Hatnua party, headed by Tzipi Livni. In the run-up to the 2015 election, he joined Lapid’s Yesh Atid, placing 12th on its slate; he just missed out on entering the Knesset when the party won 11 seats but he became an MK in September of that year when Shai Piron, as a government minister, resigned his seat.

After the formation of the 36th government earlier this year, Stern was appointed intelligence minister, a position that will reportedly go to Yisrael Beytenu’s Eli Avidar if Stern leaves the cabinet for the Jewish Agency.

If Stern is selected for the post, he would be the first former senior IDF officer to head the Jewish Agency. Most of the Jewish Agency’s chairmen were diplomats, such as Simcha Dinitz, and prominent Knesset members, such as former speaker Avraham Burg, and before Herzog, the former Soviet Prisoner of Zion and Jewish immigration activist Natan Sharansky.

Stern’s military career, however, may be a good fit for the role of Jewish Agency head: He was the commander of the IDF officers school, the military’s most significant educational institution, and later served as the head of the Education and Youth Corps and of the IDF Manpower Directorate.

He has also headed the Foundation for the Welfare of Holocaust Victims and chaired the Ethiopian National Project.

Most significantly, Stern would be a comfortable partner for the generally more progressive-leaning leaders of the American Jewish institutional world, including the liberal Jewish religious streams represented on the Jewish Agency’s board and nominating committee.

As a key voice for liberal Orthodoxy in the Knesset, Stern has been a fierce critic of the 2016 government decision to suspend — due to pressure from ultra-Orthodox leaders — a plan to guarantee non-Orthodox Jews a permanent space for pluralistic prayer at the Western Wall.

Danny Danon: A strong challenger with a key ally

Despite Stern being the clear favorite for the job, Danon is emerging as a strong challenger, meeting many of the criteria sought by the Jewish Agency’s leadership and holding favor with the key figure on the nominating committee.

Danny Danon attends a celebration marking Israel’s 70th Independence Day in Tel Aviv, April 19, 2018. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

While five of the 10 spots on the committee are automatically taken by heads of Jewish organizations from around the world, five more members are chosen by its head, Hagoel, a close ally of Danon’s.

Hagoel, before being named to head the WZO, succeeded Danon as head of the World Likud group, and the two have worked alongside one another in various Jewish organizations for a number of years. During that time, Hagoel became a key supporter of Danon’s various battles within the Likud movement.

Danon is considered an attractive candidate for the Jewish Agency, and even without the prime minister’s recommendation, he would appear to fit the bill.

During his years as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in 2015-2020, he was in constant contact with Jewish communities in the United States. He does not represent Orthodox Judaism and understands Reform, Conservative and other progressive movements among American Jewry.

Another advantage of Danon is that he would not come to the job as the result of a political arrangement to suit the government, something that the Jewish Agency showed contempt for in its rejection of Steinitz as a candidate in 2018, when Netanyahu pushed his appointment in order vacate a seat in the government and add MK David Bitan as a minister.

The nominating committee will have to decide whether three years later, with Stern, it is now willing to accept a political arrangement to vacate a seat in the cabinet by sending him to the Jewish Agency.

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