Two Unprecedented Scenarios Emerge in Battle for Control of Jewish Agency

Committee tasked with selecting the Agency’s next chairperson needs to put forward a candidate on Sunday, but neither of the two front-runners – Danny Danon and Ruth Calderon – may win enough support

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon speaks at a Jerusalem Post conference in New York City, in 2019.
Former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon speaks at a Jerusalem Post conference in New York City, in 2019.Credit: Mark Israel Salem
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

After months of indecision, the Jewish Agency’s board of governors could finally approve the candidate to be the agency’s next head when it convenes in Jerusalem early next week.

However, it is more likely at this stage that the committee tasked with nominating the next chairperson won’t reach a decision on Sunday, when it is scheduled to meet, and no candidate will be presented to the board.

Either option could pave the way for an unprecedented scenario.

If the committee does finally select a candidate, and that person is Danny Danon – one of the two front-runners – the board might, for the first time in its history, veto the committee’s choice.

Israel’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Danon belongs to the far-right camp in Likud. A fervent opponent of the two-state solution, he supports Israel’s annexation of the West Bank. He has also made some harsh statements about African asylum seekers in Israel.

He currently serves as head of World Likud and was the political mentor of Ya’akov Hagoel, the chairman of the World Zionist Organization and acting chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency. Hagoel also happens to chair the 10-person committee in charge of nominating the person who will succeed him at the Jewish Agency on a permanent basis.

Jewish Agency temporary chairman Ya'akov Hagoel speaking at a ceremony last November.Credit: Emil Salman

The committee’s nominee requires the final approval of a majority of the board’s roughly 120 members. Until now, the board has effectively served as a rubber stamp for the committee. But that will not necessarily be the case if Danon is chosen, as many of the board members are progressive and would not be comfortable having a far-right person lead an organization that is meant to represent all of World Jewry. (The board will be convening on Sunday through Tuesday – holding its first face-to-face meetings since the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020.)

The board is comprised of representatives of the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Federations of North America and Keren Hayesod – United Israel Appeal.

WZO has the largest contingent on the board, and its representatives tend toward the religious right. But the JFNA and Keren Hayesod contingents together are larger than WZO’s contingent, and their representatives lean toward the progressive left and center.

Another reason Danon’s appointment might be hard to swallow for many on the board is that it would give the religious right control of all the so-called “national institutions.” WZO is currently headed by Hagoel – himself a former World Likud leader; the Jewish National Fund is headed by Avraham Duvdevani, a representative of the religious-right Mizrahi movement; and Keren Hayesod (the fundraising arm of the Israeli government) is headed by Sam Grundwerg, a representative of Likud.

The other leading candidate for the top position at the Jewish Agency is Ruth Calderon, a talmudic scholar and the founder of Israel’s first secular yeshiva. A former lawmaker from centrist Yesh Atid, she is party leader Yair Lapid’s candidate for the job.

The previous Jewish Agency chairman, Isaac Herzog, stepped down last July to assume his new position as president of Israel. Several of the candidates named to replace him have since dropped out of the race, frustrated by ongoing delays in the decision-making process.

In addition to Danon and Calderon, the other candidates still running are Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, deputy mayor of Jerusalem and a Likud member; Omer Yankelevich, the former Diaspora affairs minister and a member of Benny Gantz’s centrist Kahol Lavan party; Michael Oren, the former ambassador to Washington who served as a lawmaker for the center-right Kulanu party; Michal Cotler-Wunsh, a lawyer and former Kahol Lavan lawmaker; and Roby Spiegel, the former head of Likud in Belgium, whose name was put forward just a few weeks ago by Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Ruth Calderon pictured while serving as a lawmaker for Yesh Atid.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The selection committee is comprised of five representatives of WZO, three representatives of the Jewish Federations of North America and two representatives of Keren Hayesod. According to Jewish Agency bylaws, nine of the 10 members must agree on the candidate before his or her name can be submitted for final approval to the board.

The committee members are believed to be largely split down the middle between Danon and Calderon. The WZO contingent, whose members were appointed by Hagoel, is believed to be heavily in favor of Danon.

Given the low likelihood that either candidate will obtain nine of the 10 votes at Sunday’s meeting, that could create another unusual scenario: Hagoel will stay on until July, when the board is next scheduled to convene. By then, he will have been serving as acting chairman for nearly a year – not that much less than Herzog served as permanent chairman.

Originally, the committee was supposed to have chosen its candidate in October, when the board last convened. The decision was delayed then after Lapid’s candidate, Elazar Stern, quit the race after he said that when he led the Manpower Directorate in the Israel Defense Forces, he ignored anonymous complaints against officers who were due for a promotion.

At this rate, there is no reason to believe the committee will be any closer to making a decision in July, which means Hagoel could stay in this temporary role until October – the next time the board meets – and even beyond.

Not surprisingly, many of those following the race have begun to wonder whether it was wise to have the acting chairman of the Jewish Agency placed in charge of the committee choosing his replacement. Might the ongoing delays in the selection process, they ask, have something to do with these dual roles he fills?

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