Analysis

U.S. Jews Finally Get Back at Netanyahu

Netanyahu has seriously undermined relations between Israel and the Jewish world, so it was only natural that the panel picking the next Jewish Agency chairman rejected his nominee for the job - tapping opposition leader Isaac Herzog instead

From Benjamin Netanyahu’s point of view, the bad seed that sprouted into Thursday’s crowning of opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog as the next chairman of the Jewish Agency, despite the prime minister’s opposition, was planted a decade or so ago, without anyone noticing. That was just before Natan Sharansky ensconced himself in that pampering post and hung on tight for nine long and pleasant years – a stint that’s ending next month.

The heads of the various Jewish Diaspora organizations and movements decided back then that they were fed up with the disgusting politics that accompanied the election of the Agency’s chairman. They thus changed the constitution: Instead of requiring the prime minister’s “agreement” to the appointment, members of the Agency’s nominating committee would now only have to “consult” with him. And instead of a simple majority, a terrifying majority of 90 percent would be required to vote in favor of the candidate – that is, 9 of the search committee’s 10 members. That stipulation, too, was aimed at neutralizing political intrusions and ensuring a clean, businesslike procedure.

Isaac Herzog. Illustration.
Amos Biderman

Half a year ago, when it became known that Sharansky was going to leave the chairmanship at long last, about 25 names were mentioned as possible candidates to succeed him. The most prominent of them were Herzog (Labor/Zionist Union), Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud), deputy minister Michael Oren (Kulanu), MK Nachman Shai (Labor) and former ambassador Ron Prosor. There was also Yohanna Arbib-Perugia, former president of the Jerusalem Foundation, who is close to Netanyahu and was for a time considered to be a leading candidate.

Time passed, and in the relevant forums in the United States, primarily in New York and Washington, the focus was largely on Herzog. Not surprising. They’re fond of him, esteem him, appreciate his great commitment to issues that they hold dear.

Over the past three years, Netanhayu, who tied his fate to that of the Haredim, whom he needs in order to form a government, succeeded in seriously undermining relations between Israel and the Jewish world. This is especially true of the United States, where the overwhelming majority of the Jews are members of the Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism. The wound to their heart, in the wake of recent controversial developments concerning the Western Wall and conversion policies, runs deep and is perhaps irreparable.

So it was only natural that when the time came to choose a successor to Sharansky, the Diaspora Jews involved with Agency affairs opted for someone who is not part of the government that embittered their lives with whips and chains. What do they owe Netanyahu, anyway? What did he ever do for them? Adopt draconian conversion laws? Turn his back on the arrangement involving creation of a pluralistic site for prayer at the Western Wall after the Haredim threatened to topple his government? Remain silent in light of the abuse and calumnies they suffer at the hands of Religious Services Minister David Azulay, from Shas? He may think that they need to grovel at his feet and obey his authority, but they obviously have a different view.

In the meantime, the question of Steinitz came up. The veteran minister is looking for an honorable exit by which to depart from political life – he’s hankering for a good job. He is having a hard time these days in Likud. It’s the Hazans, the Amsalems and the Zohars who set the tone there. Sensible people who don’t excoriate the Supreme Court or compete over who can be most vulgar, won’t have an easy time getting elected in a Likud primary.

Steinitz is also out of favor in the Balfour Street residence. He’s no longer the puppy who once would run to give interviews at the Lady’s behest, endeavoring to defend her in the face of the shameless behavior with which she embarrasses herself and her husband. He has grown up, grew sober and perhaps even got bored of the routine.

Thus, Netanyahu did not recommend Steinitz for Agency chair and did nothing to promote his candidacy. Steinitz, for his part, gave up, deciding not to make an effort at all. When the search committee asked him a few days ago if he was still interested, he said he wasn’t. He knew that without the prime minister’s support his prospects were nil anyway. The committee did invite him in for a talk, after they’d met with Netanyahu, who requested that they do so. Suddenly the premier remembered that Steinitz was his candidate, but only after the horses – nine of the 10 – had bolted. In other words, a vote was taken and the necessary majority to elect Herzog was achieved.

Netanyahu got uptight as only he’s capable of doing and started to make hysterical calls to the whole world. He may not be wild about Steinitz, but he hates losing to the opposition. That someone from Labor should be elected to anything on his watch? Oy, the shame of it. He waged a serious telephone trench war until the wee hours of Thursday morning. The American representatives didn’t buckle. They may even have enjoyed giving him the runaround.

The pressure on them continued until Thursday afternoon, when the official announcement was to be made. Even afterward members of the search committee got phone calls from people close to Netanyahu, some of whom were threatening: “How dare you? This is the prime minister of Israel you’re dealing with! Just you wait and see!”

After his election was announced, Herzog claimed that he “hadn’t been involved in all that.” The moves were made over his head. The relevant people approached him and asked if he would consider the position, he says. He humbly replied that he would agree to look into the issue. Thus ended his part.

Knowing our guy, it’s hard to believe that he didn’t make efforts, scurry about and skip and sew and knit and embroider his candidacy over the past few months where it was needed and with whom it was needed and when it was needed, with the skill and diligence of an industrious lace-maker from the Victorian age and the discretion of a Mossad agent in downtown Tehran.

Netanyahu, who fell asleep on the job, and was a bit complacent – perhaps hoping he would get a six-month delay – arranged a sweet position for Herzog. Herzog defeated Bibi. Not at the polls, that won’t happen, but in an arena where Netanyahu never imagined he could be beat this way by Herzog, who has been so nice to him all this time.

Herzog has been rescued from the opposition wilderness, where he’d been for many long years. Now he has a purpose, a role to play, a mission to fulfill: to heal, heal and heal. “For the sake of the Jewish people, I am willing to do it,” he said yesterday, with modesty and grace, without even a hint of cynicism creeping into his voice.

In the end, Herzog is the biggest success story, in fact the only one, of the faded Labor/Zionist Union brand. In the last election, he and Tzipi Livni (Hatnuah) garnered 24 seats, after two decades in which Labor didn’t even break the 20-seat barrier. He was able to keep his position as leader of the opposition even after he lost the party to Avi Gabbay a year ago. And now he’s getting hold of the “government of the Jewish people,” as the Jewish Agency is known with fine Jewish humor.

His next stop is Israel’s presidency. President Rivlin’s term will end in the summer of 2021. Herzog intends to run, and if elected, will be closing a circle by serving as president three decades after his father filled that post. Sometime between now and August, when he takes over from Sharansky at the Agency, he will take his leave of the Knesset. Perhaps Gabbay will ask him to help him choose a successor as leader of the opposition. (Gabbay himself can’t hold the post, as he is not an MK.) Tzipi Livni wants the position, and according to her, she’s entitled to it as part of the merger agreement between her party, Hatnuah, and Labor, which has mentioned a possible rotation between her and the Labor leader. Labor MK Shelly Yacimovich, who is very close to Gabbay, is also interested.

No need to envy Gabbay. Again he’ll have to choose the leader of the opposition, the person who will be more relevant than him and receive the symbols of power: an armored car, a chauffeur, a large office, ongoing security updates from the prime minister and a preferential, senior standing in the Knesset plenum. If Gabbay doesn’t have enough troubles, here’s another one.