Bielski to Head Jewish Agency

Ra'anana Mayor Zeev Bielski was unanimously elected chairman of the Jewish Agency on Friday after former minister Natan Sharansky's candidacy was vetoed in a controversial move by the agency's most senior panel.

The nine-person Advise and Consent committee, comprised of the agency's key financial backers, reportedly objected to Sharansky because of his vocal opposition to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan, fearing he would use the post of agency chairman to undermine the plan. Sharansky recently resigned from the government over the withdrawal plan.

The agency committee - which speedily endorsed Bielski when his candidacy was proposed by the prime minister last month - was thought to want to avoid ruling on Sharansky, knowing the agency would be criticized for being seen to interfere with the democratic process and failing to approve a candidate of such high standing in the Jewish world.

Indeed, criticism of the agency committee was virulent on Friday, with the majority of the World Likud faction of the Zionist General Council boycotting the vote. Yitzhak Chen, chairman of the council - whose 117 members were eligible to vote in the election - called the committee's decision "intolerable," while World Likud chairman Jacques Kupfer vehemently condemned the "maneuvering" employed to elect Bielski and questioned how Sharansky - "a hero of Israel and the Jewish People" - could possibly be considered unsuitable for the post.

Likud representative on the World Zionist Organization (WZO) Executive, Danny Danon, accused the Advise and Consent committee of causing an "earthquake" in relations between the two bodies, and blocking Sharansky's candidacy under pressure from the prime minister.

Sharansky supporters threatened to challenge the decision in court.

Bielski, a moderate in the Likud party, was expected to win today's elections even if Sharansky had competed, as he was backed by the majority of factions within the Zionist General Council, including the biggest faction of Labor-Meretz, the Reform and Conservative movements, the Confederation of United Zionists and Herut. But most members of the WZO Executive - including those who supported Bielski - were angry that Sharansky was not permitted to compete.

Conservative representative David Breakstone said: "I would rather [have seen] Bielski elected in an open and democratic process. I don't believe that Advise and Consent should be used as a way of interfering with the internal affairs of the WZO."

One WZO source said that the decision would make for "difficult relations" between the WZO and Jewish Agency and damaged the standing of the organizations in the Jewish world, where Sharansky is highly regarded. Another source added: "It will weaken Bielski."

"I personally would have preferred to have the vote [with two candidates]," Bielski told Haaretz.

`Narrow interests'

Sharansky issued a statement on Friday before formally withdrawing from the elections: "All I wanted was to contribute my rich experience to lead the Jewish Agency which faces serious problems. To my sorrow, narrow interests and external considerations prevented me from competing in a proper, democratic process and winning today."

While much of the outrage expressed on Friday at the Advice and Committee's decision focused on Sharansky as a "hero and leader of the Jewish people," one commentator pointed out that just a week ago, when Sharansky competed against former minister Gideon Patt to be the candidate of World Likud, Sharansky only beat Patt by 38 votes to 24.

Carole Solomon, who heads the agency's Advise and Consent committee and chairs its board of governors, insisted Friday that the unanimous decision not to approve Sharansky in no way minimizes "his character or his huge contribution" to the Jewish people. "It doesn't mean there's any aspect of Natan Sharansky that's unacceptable," she told Haaretz after the vote. "They were two strong candidates. We simply felt Zeevik [Bielski] was the right person for the position at this time."

She said: "The prime minister stated very clearly there was only one candidate he was supporting. We did not base our decision on political considerations. The term `disengagement' or `anti-disengagement' is not an issue here. Nor would I let the agency be dragged into any arena like that. It's not appropriate."

Solomon emphasized that the committee does not select or lobby for candidates, but rather is required to approve a candidate to ensure that the "right person" is selected for the job. "There have been incidences where we have approved more than one person and incidences where we have made a definitive choice." She added that, in this case at least, she would have preferred the Advice and Consent committee to have considered Sharansky only after the vote if required, hinting that the storm over the veto could have been avoided.

She added she does not envisage a rift between the agency and WZO as a result of the decision. "Even in the best relationships, you don't agree all the time, but if you value the relationship, you work to find ways to keep it going."

Political motives

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of movement in North America and a prominent member of the agency's board of governors for many years, agreed that no rift between the agency and the WZO was likely to emerge. "Once, the strong force [in this relationship] was the WZO, but that started to change a long time ago," said Yoffie, in Israel to attend the Jewish Agency Assembly which opens today.

"I suspect that some of the anger is from those who thought Sharansky was the best candidate, but much of it is from people who want to get to the prime minister because of the disengagement," Yoffie said.