As the race for control of the Jewish Agency heats up, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is resisting growing pressure to withdraw his support from Elazar Stern, a member of the centrist Yesh Atid party, for the top leadership position at the organization.
In a letter sent several days ago to Michael Siegal, chairman of the board of governors of the Jewish Agency, Bennett indicated that Stern, a member of the centrist Yesh Atid party, still enjoys his full backing. Referring to Stern as his “preferred candidate” for the position of chairman of the executive, the prime minister urged Siegal to “positively consider” his nomination.
“MK Stern has been an exemplary public servant for decades,” Bennett wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by Haaretz.
He praised the Yesh Atid lawmaker, who currently serves as Intelligence Affairs Minister, for being “a thoughtful, openminded, compassionate leader, who would undoubtedly serve the Jewish people a great deal should he assume the position of chairman of the executive.”
The letter noted Stern’s experience leading the Israeli army’s conversion program for soldiers not recognized as Jewish by Israel's Chief Rabbinate and described him as “a stalwart champion of strengthening the IDF’s connection with Diaspora Jewry.”
In June, while on a visit to Israel, Siegal met with several candidates for the Jewish Agency job. He was said not to be overly impressed with any one of them. Stern’s lack of fluency in English is seen as his main drawback for a position that requires constant interaction with Jewish leaders in North America.
Isaac Herzog, the former chairman of the executive, was sworn in as President of Israel in early July, before there was time to name his successor at the Jewish Agency. Since then, Yaakov Hagoel, chairman of the World Zionist Organization, has been filling in as acting chairman of the Jewish Agency.
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Stern received Bennett’s blessing after his candidacy was put forward by Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid, who serves as foreign minister. In the past, the committee that nominates the chairman of the executive has almost always approved the candidate put forward by the prime minister. The exception was the last round in 2018, when the committee voted for Herzog, in defiance of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposed the candidacy of the former Labor Party leader, and tried but failed to push one of his own Likud loyalists, Yuval Steinitz, into the job.
The candidate must receive nine out of 10 votes on the nominations committee to be submitted for the final approval of the Jewish Agency board of governors. The board of governors is scheduled to endorse the candidate at its upcoming meeting at the end of October.
But given the current makeup of the nominations committee, whose members were appointed two weeks ago, Stern, who had been considered the front-runner in the race, could be easily blocked from obtaining such a large majority.
The nominations committee does not include any representatives of the Conservative movement, Yesh Atid or the Labor Party, which could have strengthened Stern’s prospects. Instead, Kahol Lavan – the centrist party which has tense relations with Yesh Atid since the collapse of their merger – received a seat on the committee.
The 10-person committee comprises five representatives of the WZO, three representatives of the Jewish Federations of North America, and two representatives of Keren Hayesod.
The names of the five members of the World Zionist Organization delegation to the committee were proposed by Hagoel, who previously served as head of World Likud. Likud and Eretz Kadosh, a brand new ultra-Orthodox party, operate as one faction in the WZC.
The ultra-Orthodox are opposed to Stern because of his progressive views, which means that Hagoel, who is chairman of the nominations committee and one of the five members of the WZO delegation, will almost certainly not support him (the vote is secret). Neither is it likely that Racheli Baratz-Riks, the Kahol Lavan representative (and head of the WZO Department for Combating Antisemitism and Promoting Diaspora Community Resilience) will.
Benny Gantz, Kahol Lavan's head, has been lobbying to appoint Omer Yankelevich, the ultra-Orthodox woman who was a member of his party and served as minister of Diaspora Affairs in the last government, as Jewish Agency chairman, or alternatively, at Keren Hayesod, which engages primarily in fundraising for Israel abroad.
Kahol Lavan and Labor operate as one faction in the WZC, but Hagoel decided to choose a representative of Kahol Lavan rather than Labor to represent it on the committee, which could have detrimental consequences for Stern.
Danny Danon, the current head of World Likud and a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, is also eyeing the job. Others who have been mentioned as possible candidates are Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, the deputy mayor of Jerusalem; Tehila Friedman, a former Kahol Lavan Knesset member; Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to Washington; and most recently, Irina Nevzlin, chair of the board of directors of The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot and spouse of Likud lawmaker Yuli Edelstein.