Netanyahu's Choice Rejected: Opposition Leader Herzog Tapped as Next Jewish Agency Chief

This is the first time in 23 years that the prime minister's choice for the position was rejected

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog attends a meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, January 26, 2018.
Olivier Fitoussi

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog is slated to replace Natan Sharansky as the head of the Jewish Agency, after a search committee decided to back his candidacy and reject Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's candidate.

This is the first time in 23 years that the prime minister's choice for the position was rejected. Sources said Netanyahu has decided not to contest the nomination, and would instead nominate a candidate from his Likud party for the post of Jewish National Fund chairman.

The Jewish Agency's Board of Governors is convening in Jerusalem on Sunday and is expected to give the nomination its final approval, in which case Herzog would start his four-year term on August 1, 2018.

"In light of an appeal by Jewish leaders in the Diaspora, I agreed to take on the role of chairman of the Jewish Agency," Herzog tweeted after the nomination was declared. "These are days of significant challenges concerning the relations between the Jewish people and the State of Israel."

Netanyahu called the search committee on Thursday and was informed that Herzog was its choice for the top job. Netanyahu then asked if the panel had met with Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, and when he was told that there had been no such meeting, Netanyahu stressed that Steinitz was his candidate and asked that they meet. After the panel met with the energy minister, it informed Netanyahu that the members were still backing Herzog.

On Thursday, Netanyahu also cancelled a meeting scheduled for next Monday of the committee that coordinates actvities between the government and the Jewish Agency. 

Herzog, who headed the Labor Party prior to being ousted last summer by Avi Gabbay and also held various ministerial posts in past governments, was one of five candidates for Jewish Agency chairmant. Because Gabbay is not a Knesset member, Herzog remained leader of the opposition in the Knesset following his ouster as Labor Party leader. Sources have said he is now expected to be replaced as Knesset opposition leader by Tzipi Livni, who ran in the No. 2 slot in the last Knesset elections behind Herzog on a joint Zionist Union slate. 

In addition to Herzog, the panel met with Nachman Shai, a Zionist Union lawmaker. Ron Prosor, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and the United Kingdom, declined a meeting with the panel. Another candidate, Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States who serves as a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, notified the committee earlier this week that he was no longer interested in the position.

Sharansky, formerly a Prisoner of Zion in the Soviet Union and prominent leader of Soviet Jewry, will step down next month after a nine-year stint at the helm of the agency.

The search committee, headed by World Zionist Organization Chairman Avraham Duvdevani, is comprised of 10 members. According to the Jewish Agency bylaws, the candidate must be approved by nine of the 10 members.

The last time a candidate backed by a prime minister was rejected was in 1995, when Yitzhak Rabin proposed that the head of the Jewish Agency's aliyah department, Yechiel Leket, take the job, but the Jewish Agency panel recommended Avraham Burg instead.

Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay congratulated Herzog on his appointment, calling him "the right person in the right place to reconnect the Jews of the United States and the world with Israel."