How Israel's Dusty Zionist Bureaucracy Survives

Jobs for Cronies — and Ties to Deep-Pocketed Diaspora


By Anshel Pfeffer

Published May 10, 2014.
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As it is, the Jewish Agency’s raison d’etre, encouraging and organizing Jewish immigration to Israel, has been weakening for years. Nearly all the Jews outside Israel live in relative prosperity in safe and stable societies. Their decision on whether to emigrate is be based on financial calculations, and if they need any additional information, they can go online or hop on a plane. They don’t need a Jewish Agency “shaliach,” or “emissary,” to explain things. The number of immigrants continues to dwindle along with the Agency’s traditional mission.

The Agency has tried to reinvent itself in recent years as an educational and “community-building” movement, fostering Jewish identity and “peoplehood,” but this field is crowded and not sexy to donors.

Agency representatives are still responsible for the initial screening of those eligible to receive Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. But there’s no reason that can’t be done by officials at the Interior or Immigration Ministries. As it is, the Immigration Ministry under Minister Sofa Landver of Yisrael Beitenu is already becoming much more proactive and trying to encourage more immigration from the former Soviet Union, which used to be the Agency’s role. At the same time, the nongovernmental organization Nefesh b’Nefesh has taken over the business of aliyah from North America and Britain, claiming to have made the process more user-friendly (though numbers have not increased noticeably as a result). Meanwhile, the Agency has given up its territory without a fight.

Ironically, this has happened under a prime minister who is very aware of the concerns of the Diaspora. Netanyahu is trying to launch a “strategic initiative” that will rejuvenate the relationship between Israel and the Jews of the world. He is even prepared to be the first Israeli leader to reverse the paradigm whereby Jews abroad pay for everything and has committed hundreds of millions of Israeli taxpayers’ shekels to Diaspora-focused programs. The new initiative could save the Jewish Agency if it succeeds in divining what Netanyahu wants to achieve and adapts accordingly. If it fails, it will have reached the end of its journey.

Lieberman’s private foreign service

Even if the JNF were monitored by the state comptroller, it probably wouldn’t make much difference. Take for example another powerful but less well-known organization at the Israel-Diaspora nexus.

Last September, State Comptroller Yosef Shapira published a special report on Nativ, or as it was once called Lishkat Ha’Kesher (The Contact Bureau). Despite the report’s severity, it was barely mentioned in the media, and like previous reports, it will change nothing. The comptroller slams every aspect of Nativ’s activity — budget management, hiring, unauthorized trips and projects — and a severe lack of oversight. But the most troubling conclusion comes right at the start, in Shapira’s personal introduction, where he writes of the government agency, “There is a lack of clarity, an opacity as to Nativ’s role, its status and responsibilities.”

Nativ is formally part of the Prime Minister’s Office and employs around 120 full-time staff, a third of them serving in the former countries of the Soviet Union. Its budget has been growing for years and currently stands at nearly 100 million shekels ($29 million). Even after spending two years investigating Nativ, the comptroller’s staff failed to understand why it exists.

The report tries to define Nativ’s unique status, a unit of the Prime Minister’s Office but under the auspices of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. It contains no explanation as to why Lieberman, who controls Israel’s official foreign service, wields a second international network. The answer, which doesn’t appear in the report, has been clear for years to anyone involved in Israel’s relations with the Jewish communities of the former Soviet empire. “For seven years, Nativ has had one aim: maintaining Lieberman’s political and personal ties in the Russian-speaking region and those of Yisrael Beitenu with its potential electorate,” says an official who was worked in Russia and its neighbors for many years.

Nativ was founded in 1952 to keep contact with the Jews living behind the Iron Curtain. For decades it was a secret service, part of Israel’s intelligence community. But like the JNF, WZO and Jewish Agency, whose historical roles ended with the establishment of the state, Nativ lost its raison d’etre in the early 1990s with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel, Russia and its former republics.

From the mid-1990s, Nativ’s budget was slashed and the threat of closure hung over it. It was saved by a coalition agreement signed in 2006 between Lieberman and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Lieberman, who was appointed strategic affairs minister, became responsible for a new beefed-up Nativ, with expanded though loosely-defined powers and greatly increased funding and manpower. Even when Lieberman was temporarily forced out of the cabinet by political and legal circumstances, he retained his hold on Nativ. When Netanyahu formed his second government and appointed Lieberman foreign minister, he found himself in control of the official diplomatic corps and a smaller, separate staff, working out of the embassies and consulates in countries with Russian-speaking Jewish communities. Nativ representatives use diplomatic cover, but they don’t answer to the local ambassadors and sometimes even act against Israel’s official diplomatic policy.

Nativ is no longer part of the intelligence community, but it has not shed its atmosphere of secrecy. It doesn’t publish its activities and operates out of an anonymous building in south Tel-Aviv. Nativ director Naomi Ben-Ami, a former diplomat and ambassador to Ukraine, served as Lieberman’s foreign-affairs adviser when he was national infrastructure minister. Since her appointment in 2007, complaints have accumulated that to be hired by Nativ one must first be approved by a senior member of Lieberman’s party. “Naomi is a pro who is trying to keep the organization relevant,” says a former Nativ employee. “But in reality, it [Nativ] is Lieberman’s plaything and continues to exist only due to his political influence and for his interests.” Nativ’s defenders say that it cannot justify its existence in public due to the sensitive nature of Israel’s relations with Russia, which are evident now in the crisis in Ukraine. They say that to maintain those relations and protect the local Jewish communities, Israel needs a team of experienced and discreet operators.

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