New Party Causes Complications for Agencies

Published May 26, 2006, issue of May 26, 2006.
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The Israeli political shakeup caused by the emergence of the centrist Kadima party is complicating negotiations over control of the three nonprofit agencies primarily responsible under Israeli law for the Jewish state’s relations with Diaspora Jewish communities, according to a report on Ynet, the Web site of the Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot.

The three organizations — the Jewish Agency for Israel, the World Zionist Organization and Jewish National Fund — operate a variety of social service and economic development programs with a combined budget of some half-billion dollars, largely funded by Diaspora philanthropies. Their senior officers are elected by the World Zionist Congress, a gathering of Israeli and Diaspora leaders who meet every four years and usually approve a nominating slate negotiated in advance by the main parties and organizations represented at the congress. By tradition, the top positions are divided between Israel’s two main political parties, Likud and Labor, with the governing party receiving the best slots.

With a Zionist congress due to convene in Jerusalem in late June, negotiations over this year’s slate are dominated by Kadima, the party formed last fall by Ariel Sharon and now headed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Despite its dominant position in Israel, however, the party has no Diaspora affiliates, unlike Labor or Likud, nor does it have comparable ranks of midlevel activists prepared to take over departments of the sprawling Zionist bureaucracy.

Further complicating matters, several incumbent officers are former Labor or Likud members who defected to Kadima with Olmert, putting them at odds with their former party colleagues.

Kadima is seeking to keep the current Jewish Agency chairman, Ze’ev Bielski of Likud, in his post, where he has served for the past year. In addition, Kadima is demanding the chairmanship of the World Zionist Organization’s settlement division, which has drawn controversy because of its role in creating West Bank settlements and outposts. A senior Kadima source told Ynet that the party sees control of the settlement division as crucial to implementation of Olmert’s so-called convergence plan for West Bank withdrawal. Officials also see the division, with its huge, state-funded budget, as a tool for development of the Negev and Galilee.

The Labor Party, which came in second in Israel’s March parliamentary elections, wants to retain the positions of JNF chairman, which it currently holds, and Jewish Agency treasurer, now held by Kadima defector Shai Hermesh. Kadima, for its part, reportedly wants the post of JNF vice chairman. Alternatively, it seeks to control the Jewish Agency’s heavily funded Immigrant and Absorption Committee.

According to Ynet, insiders expect that Labor will be forced to choose one of the two posts and yield the other to the Mizrachi-Religious Zionist movement. Losing one of the two seats will heighten factional tensions between Labor leader Amir Peretz and his chief party rival, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, both of whom hope to name allies to top posts.

The Likud, which held most of the top positions until recently, is expected to settle this time for lesser posts, heading individual Jewish Agency departments.

Also entering the fray this year for the first time is Avigdor Lieberman, whose Russian immigrant-based Yisrael Beiteinu party came nearly even with Likud in Israel’s parliamentary elections in March.

According to Ynet, Olmert’s aides have “given a green light” to negotiators to make a deal with Lieberman in hopes of winning his cooperation in the Knesset.

“They’re dividing the cake right down to the last crumb so as to reach the World Zionist Congress opening with agreements,” Ynet quoted an anonymous negotiator as saying. “In this case there’s no opposition. In the end everyone is getting a piece of the cake.”

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