Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog Unanimously Approved as New Jewish Agency Head

First time in 23 years that prime minister's choice for the job was rejected ■ Herzog, who will take office August 1, vows to work together with Netanyahu 'to foster and strengthen the Jewish people and State of Israel'

Outgoing Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky and Chairman-elect MK Isaac Herzog after Herzog's election, Jerusalem, June 24, 2018.
Nir Kafri / The Jewish Agency for Israel

The appointment of opposition leader Isaac Herzog to chairman of the Jewish Agency was unanimously approved by the agency's board of governors on Sunday morning. Herzog will start his four-year term on August 1, 2018, replacing Natan Sharansky.

Last week, a search committee decided to back his candidacy and reject Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's candidate, marking the first time in 23 years that the prime minister's choice for the position was rejected. 

According to sources with knowledge of developments behind the scenes, Netanyahu tried until the last minute to foil Herzog’s appointment. In the early morning hours, before the board of governors approved the appointment, his chief of staff Yoav Horowitz contacted members of the board urging them to delay the vote. His request was rejected.

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"The Jewish Agency is the narrow bridge that connects the State of Israel and the Jewish people wherever they are," Herzog said upon accepting the nomination. "This bridge now has to confront great challenges that face our people. They are at risk, at a crossroads – and we have to do everything we can do to ensure unity of the Jewish people, especially the young generation."

To a round of applause, he added: "A Jew is a Jew is a Jew, no matter whatever stream and whatever skullcap he puts on his head." Although he was not Netanyahu's candidate for the job, Herzog vowed to "work together to foster and strengthen the Jewish people and State of Israel," adding: "We have a common cause."

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin congratulated Herzog for his appointment, saying that Herzog "has operated in the heart of Israeli democracy most of his life and served the Israeli people." Rivlin added that "few people understand the challenges facing the Jewish world as well as Herzog, as well as the need to teach and strengthen Jewish identity and the strong bond between Israel and the Diaspora Jews."

Israel's Reform movement, the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, congratulated Herzog in a statement, saying that his unanimous appointment "reflects international recognition for his abilities as well as the Zionist Jewish leadership's fears of the expanding split between Israel and many Jewish communities in the Diaspora."

The reform movement added that Herzog's appointment signals the "urgent need for Israeli leadership that seeks respectful communication among all Jewish streams, giving all Jews the feeling that Israel is their home."

Executive Director and CEO of the Conservative Judaism movement in Israel, Yizhar Hess, added his voice to the congratulations and said in a statement that "Herzog has already proved his deep commitment to the Jewish world and to all its denominations, as well as to strengthening their relationship with Israel... I am convinced he will act to ensure Israel is the home of the entire Jewish people."

Responding to the appointment, UJA-Federation of New York CEO Eric Goldstein called Herzog "an inspired choice for a role essential in strengthening the bonds between the Jewish state and global Jewry.

"Isaac has a deep familiarity with global Jewry, based both on his decades of distinguished public service, and an extraordinary family tradition of leadership and commitment to the Jewish community,” he added. "We look forward to working together with Isaac and the Jewish Agency to help ensure a bright future for Israel and the Jewish people.”

On Thursday, Netanyahu called the search committee 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.

Sources said Netanyahu decided to not to contest the nomination, and would instead nominate a candidate from his Likud party for the post of Jewish National Fund chairman.

erzog, 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.