Mission Impossible? Inside the Effort to Find New Jewish Agency Leader

Plans to unveil a new Agency head by the end of October have come and gone, with February now looming as the next deadline. But will Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett have agreed on a state-sanctioned candidate by then?

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Jewish Agency dramas (clockwise from top left): Ruth Calderon, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, Tzipi Livni, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Labor MK Nachman Shai in the Knesset.
Jewish Agency dramas (clockwise from top left): Ruth Calderon, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, Tzipi Livni, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Labor MK Nachman Shai in the Knesset. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum, Emil Salman, Moti Milrod and Knesset Spokesperson's Office
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

For months, the big question on many minds in the Jewish world was this: Who will be the next chairperson of the Jewish Agency?

These days, they are more likely wondering if the Agency will ever have another chairperson.

That is not surprising, considering how long the process has dragged on.

Isaac Herzog, the executive‘s previous chairman, left the job in early July to assume his new position as president of Israel. Since then, the committee tasked with choosing his replacement has already been asked to delay its decision three times.

It is not for any lack of candidate, though. In fact, there are currently eight, far more than in any previous round. Rather, it is because the center-left camp can’t seem to find a candidate of its own to run against them.

According to the original timetable, Herzog’s replacement was supposed to have been announced in late October – just in time for the Agency’s final board of governors’ meeting of the year, where the appointment was to have been approved.

The center-left had a candidate back then. His candidacy had been put forth by Yair Lapid, chairman of the centrist Yesh Atid party, and received the blessing of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. That candidate was Yesh Atid lawmaker Elazar Stern. He is Modern Orthodox, like Bennett, which perhaps explains his appeal to the prime minister.

However, two weeks before the nominations committee was scheduled to vote, Stern dropped out of the race after a public outcry erupted over sexist remarks he had made in a radio interview several days earlier. Stern had suggested that he habitually shredded complaints about sexual misconduct when he served as head of the army’s manpower division.

The only candidate to be endorsed by Israeli leaders, Stern had until then been considered a front-runner in the race.

With the other eight candidates all affiliated with either Likud or the religious right, it was important for Lapid – and the entire progressive camp, for that matter – to find another candidate who represented their values. As a result, Lapid asked that the nominations committee delay its October meeting so he could find someone else. He was given an extension of a month.

That month passed without Lapid coming up with a name. The committee agreed to give him another extension – this time, until its next scheduled meeting, which was held this Tuesday. That meeting took place, as scheduled, but again, without any candidate named by Lapid.

According to sources familiar with what transpired, Lapid persuaded the committee members that there was no reason for them to rush and make a decision now, considering that the Agency’s next board of governors’ meeting is only in February. Reluctantly, they agreed to give him another extension.

The problem for Lapid seems to be that he can’t find a candidate who is also acceptable to Bennett, and he does not want to put forth a name without the blessing of the prime minister.

Bennett recently rejected Lapid’s proposal to nominate Ruth Calderon, a former Yesh Atid lawmaker who founded the first secular bet hamidrash (hall of Torah study) in Israel. Her proud secularism apparently did not resonate with the first religious premier in Israeli history.

Bennett also rejected Lapid’s plan to nominate Tzipi Livni, the former opposition leader and one of Israel’s most accomplished female politicians. Livni was considered too left wing for Bennett, who heads the right-wing Yamina party.

Seemingly benefiting from their inability to reach agreement on a candidate is a veteran politician once considered to have little chance: Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai. “Nachman has the advantage of being someone that no one can vote against,” one of the other candidates noted. While few would dispute Shai’s expertise in Israel-Diaspora affairs – in his years in the Knesset, it was his key focus – many wonder if what the Jewish Agency needs at its helm right now is yet another Ashkenazi guy, in this case one well past his prime (Shai is 75).

Shai is a member of the Labor Party and won his current ministerial position because of his party affiliation. Were he to move over to the Jewish Agency, Labor would have to be compensated in some way. Exactly how is currently under discussion.

Will a deal be struck by February, when the board of governors meets again? That is still up in the air.

Asked why Lapid did not present a candidate on Tuesday, and when he will present one, if ever, his spokesman responded: “I’m not going to address issues related to the Jewish Agency at this stage.”

A spokesman for World Zionist Organization Chairman Yaakov Hagoel, who also serves as head of the nominations committee, would not respond to questions about when the next chairperson of the Jewish Agency will be chosen.

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