Ra'anana Mayor Zeev Bielski was unanimously voted to be chairman of the Jewish Agency on Friday after former minister Natan Sharansky's candidacy was vetoed by the agency's most senior panel.
"I am very happy. It was a long month of ups and downs. I feel a great responsibility from next week when I start working for the Jewish people," Bielski told Haaretz.
The nine-person Advise and Consent committee - comprised of the agency's key financial backers - was said to have objected to Sharansky's candidacy on the grounds that he is one of the most vocal opponents of the prime minister's disengagement plan and feared he would use his position as agency chairman to undermine it. The committee was also thought to have been keen to avoid ruling on Sharansky, aware of the criticism the agency would come under 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 Friday, with the majority of the World Likud faction of the Zionist General Council - whose 117 members were eligible to vote in the election - boycotting the vote. Likud representative on the World Zionist Organization Executive, Danny Danon, accused the Advise and Consent committee of "manipulating" the agreements between the WZO and JA to prevent Sharansky's candidacy for political reasons under pressure from the prime minister.
Bielski was expected to win Friday's elections even if Sharansky had competed, as he was backed by the majority of factions with the Zionist General Council. Members of the WZO Executive who supported Bielski were also 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."
How the agency committee's decision will impact on relations between the Zionist politicians and their fundraising partners in the agency will become clearer in the coming weeks.
After Bielski was elected Friday lunchtime, he told members of the Zionist General Council in a victory speech that he paid tribute to Sharansky and declared he would be the "chairman of everyone."
Sharansky issued a statement saying: "All I wanted was to contribute my rich experience to lead the Jewish Agency which has serious problems. To my sorrow, small interests, irrelevant considerations, prevented me from competing in a proper, democratic process and win today."