Michael Oren Admits He’d Like Top Job at Jewish Agency, but Hasn’t Discussed It With Netanyahu

Former Israeli ambassador to U.S. is currently not a candidate to replace Natan Sharansky, who leaves in June, but says he would place greater focus on Jewish immigration to Israel if he got the role

MK Michael Oren.
Ofer Vaknin

Michael Oren is currently not a candidate to replace Natan Sharansky as chairman of the Jewish Agency, high-ranking sources in the organization told Haaretz. But if Israel’s former ambassador to the United States and current deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office became one, his candidacy would most likely be approved, they said.

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The sources cited Oren’s considerable popularity among members of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors, many of whom remember him favorably from his D.C. days between 2009 and 2013.

The Jerusalem Post reported Monday that Jewish leaders have expressed an interest in Oren replacing Sharansky, who is scheduled to leave the Agency – the world’s largest Jewish nonprofit – in June following a nine-year stint.

Oren, who is a Knesset member for the center-right Kulanu party, confirmed to Haaretz that Jewish leaders in the United States would like to see him get the job.

He added, however, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had not approached him about it, and neither had he himself conveyed any interest to the Israeli leader about the role.

“I haven’t been campaigning at all,” said Oren, who is known to enjoy close ties with Netanyahu (who made him Israel’s Washington envoy in 2009).

Asked if it’s a job that interests him, Oren responded: “Of course it does, although I would miss the world of politics and diplomacy.”

He added that, in his view, the Agency was at a “critical juncture” and needed to reinvent itself to “make itself relevant for the 21st century.”

Oren said he was happy with many things Sharansky had done as chairman, especially his focus on Jewish peoplehood. But were he to fill the position, he continued, “I personally would be more inclined to stress aliyah,” meaning Jewish immigration to Israel.

Oren has taken heat recently for various controversial statements that suggest a sharp political lurch to the right. The most recent was his accusation that the family of Ahed Tamimi – the Palestinian teenage girl charged with assault for slapping an Israeli soldier – is fake.

Senior Agency sources said Oren’s name had not been forwarded to them by the Prime Minister’s Office, but noted that neither had any others.

The chairman of the Agency is traditionally nominated by the prime minister and approved by a special appointments committee comprised of Jewish world leaders. The committee has never previously rejected a prime minister’s nominee.

Since Netanyahu has yet to present the committee with the name of his candidate, currently it seems unlikely there will be a replacement for Sharansky by the time he steps down in June.

The Agency’s board of governors will convene at the end of February for its final meeting before Sharansky leaves. It had been hoped the prime minister would have presented his candidate to the committee by then.

If there is no replacement for Sharansky by June, the entire Agency executive board will either fill in for him or appoint a temporary replacement.

Senior Jewish world sources said Netanyahu has been too preoccupied by the police investigations into his affairs, along with flaring tensions with Iran, to find time for Agency matters.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office refused to comment.