Israeli Ministers Threaten Pushback Against Controversial Yad Vashem Chairman Nomination

Gantz’s party threatens to block the appointment of former far-right politician until an agreement is reached with Netanyahu’s Likud on other top positions in the public service still waiting to be filled

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Yad Vashem, April 19, 2020.
Yad Vashem, April 19, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party, a key partner in the governing coalition, is threatening to block, at least temporarily, the contentious appointment of Effi Eitam, a former far-right politician and military commander, to the position of chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.

Asked whether it intends to support Eitam’s candidacy, the centrist party said on Wednesday in a written response that it would not allow any appointment to come up for a vote in the cabinet until a consensus had been reached with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party on other senior-level positions in the public service waiting to be filled. These include the police commissioner, state prosecutor, director general of the Justice Ministry and accountant general and head of the budget division at the Finance Ministry.

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“We will not bring any appointment to the government that is not part of a comprehensive deal that will ensure political and governmental stability for the benefit of the citizens of Israel,” Kahol Lavan said. In recent months, Kahol Lavan has been trying to get the Likud to reach a deal on the other appointments but to no avail.

Effi Eitam talks during an interview in his Jerusalem office, March 19, 2002.Credit: Jacqueline Larma/AP

However, Kahol Lavan wouldn’t say whether it was opposed to Eitam – a former lawmaker and leader of the now-defunct National Religious Party – on ideological grounds. Eitam has called for the expulsion of West Bank Palestinians and the ouster of Israeli Arabs from the Knesset.

Likud Minister Zeev Elkin, whose portfolio includes jurisdiction over Yad Vashem, had been hoping to bring Eitam’s appointment up for a final vote in the cabinet within the next week or two. When informed of Kahol Lavan’s position, Elkin warned that if the party tried to block the appointment, it would be held responsible for “the paralysis of the organization and its economic collapse.”

“I hope that Yad Vashem does not become a captive in a political game,” Elkin told Haaretz. “There are things that are above politics.”

On Tuesday, Eitam’s candidacy was approved by a special committee that vets senior appointments in the public service. Elkin said that some bureaucratic hurdles needed to be overcome, however, before it could brought up for a vote in the cabinet.

Kahol Lavan, which has evolved into an opposition force of sorts within the government, holds 11 of the 32 current seats in the cabinet. Under the coalition agreement signed in May, neither Likud nor Kahol Lavan can bring up proposals for a vote in the cabinet without one another's prior consent.

Eitam’s appointment has already been endorsed by Netanyahu. It is expected that the other Likud ministers – as well as the party’s right-wing and religious coalition partners – will fall in line.

The cabinet also includes two ministers from Labor – Amir Peretz and Itzik Shmuli – which is the most left-wing party in the current coalition. The office of Economy and Industry Minister Peretz did not respond to a request for comment about Eitam’s appointment, while the office of Labor Minister Shmuli said: “We will update about his position before the government decision.”

While members of the government either dig in or plead the fifth about Eitam’s appointment, the international outcry against it has been spreading. Earlier this week, a group of 220 professors, academics, Holocaust historians and survivors signed a petition urging the Israeli government to reconsider the move.

“Appointing Effi Eitam as chairman of Yad Vashem would turn an internationally respected institution devoted to the documentation of crimes against humanity and the pursuit of human rights into a mockery and a disgrace,” the petitioners wrote.

The Anti-Defamation League, as well as more than 50 organizations that represent Holocaust survivors in Israel, have also voiced fierce opposition to the move.

Isaac Herzog, former chairman of the Labor party and current chairman of the Jewish Agency, has yet to comment publicly on the controversial appointment.

But David Breakstone, the outgoing Jewish Agency representative on the Yad Vashem Council, which oversees the board of directors, was willing to say the following: “I don’t want to react to any particular name while this process is going on, but I trust that the minister is aware of the sensitivity of the decision and the importance of nominating an individual who embodies the values integral to the institution’s mission. Those values include respect for and the acceptance of minorities living in one’s midst and a commitment to ensuring that such minorities have full equality before the law and equal access to society’s resources. Any candidate who does not personify those principles would be an unfortunate choice.”

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