Jerusalem & Babylon / How well does Livni know the Diaspora?
Whether or not Tzipi Livni's wafer-thin primary victory will prove sufficient for her to form a government and serve as prime minister, one thing is certain: Ehud Olmert?s administration is over. It was an overdue ending in almost everyone?s opinion. But there was at least one field in which the outgoing premier did embark on a positive initiative: shifting the paradigm of the Israel-Diaspora relationship.
Olmert?s landmark speech to the Jewish Agency board of governors three months ago - which was preceded by comprehensive planning and followed by the formation of a high-powered committee - signaled a significant process that has now been cast in doubt. Olmert told the uncles from overseas that Israel no longer wants to see them merely as check writers, content with coming over once a year to unveil another plaque and lavishly hosting Israeli leaders in their home countries. Instead, he proposed a partnership in which Israel would assume a much greater degree of responsibility for Jewish education around the world.
The man who was to be in charge of implementing this commitment - Cabinet Secretary Ovad Yehezkel, Olmert?s right-hand man for the last 15 years - will almost certainly be leaving with his boss. So what will happen to this attempt at radical reform?
Livni, if indeed she succeeds in grabbing the reins of power, will have many more pressing priorities: keeping her coalition together, continuing the negotiations with the Palestinians and Syrians, dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat and salvaging the legal system, to mention just the first items on her long list. But even if, a few months down the road, she gets a few spare moments to look around, there is little in her personal record to suggest that the future of world Jewry will be on her agenda.
Livni will not be the first prime minister born in Israel; Yitzhak Rabin, Benjamin Netanyahu and Olmert were all sabras. But Rabin was ambassador to Washington; Netanyahu lived for many years in the United States and served as ambassador to the United Nations; and Olmert maintained close ties for decades with many Jewish leaders and communities abroad, especially while serving as mayor of Jerusalem.
Livni will thus be the first prime minister to reach the top without any significant, first-hand knowledge of the Diaspora. Her only relevant experience was her short term as immigrant absorption minister, a post she held for part of the time simultaneously with the housing portfolio and escaped as soon as possible to become justice minister. Her role as immigration czar is probably the least significant item on her curriculum vitae, perhaps with the exception of her job as caretaker of a Mossad safe house in Paris.
However, this lack of a record does not have to be a weakness. Some prime ministers have, if anything, been too cozy with their Jewish backers overseas. In Olmert?s case, these ties ultimately brought about his downfall.
It would be a great shame if the processes put in place by Olmert were to stop just because Livni is not acquainted with the issue and her team has more urgent matters on its plate. No other senior member of government is dealing with this. Isaac Herzog is officially minister for Diaspora affairs, but that is just a sideline to his main job as social affairs minister.
As on so many other things, no one has any idea what Livni's position on the future of the Jewish people is, if she has one at all. There does not seem to be any reason why she should object to the objectives set out by Olmert. She will naturally want to appoint her own cabinet secretary, but that does not mean that Ovad Yehezkel, who has shown a true passion for this unfashionable issue, has to stop his work. The best thing would be to appoint him to a new post as the prime minister?s envoy to the Jewish world. With sufficient backing, he could see the process through.Yehezkel had another special brief on which he made less progress: Olmert charged him a year ago with getting the conversion agency out of the mud. Since then, things have only gotten worse. The agency?s head, Rabbi Haim Druckman, was turned out and has not been replaced for four months; and thousands of conversions that he oversaw have been discredited and are not being recognized by many local religious councils. But it would be unfair to place the bulk the blame for this on Yehezkel?s shoulders; he never understood what a quagmire he was entering.
The last thing that Livni, who is facing a difficult round of negotiations with Shas, needs is a new showdown between the government and the rabbis. And the religion-and-state battlefield is yet another area in which Livni has little experience. But perhaps a fresh and unprejudiced attitude is just what is called for now. She would do well to remember that the driving force behind finding a conversion solution for over 300,000 immigrants who are not Jewish according to rabbinic law was her political patron Ariel Sharon - the man without whose backing she would have never reached the heights she scaled this week.
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