How Israel's Dusty Zionist Bureaucracy Survives

Jobs for Cronies — and Ties to Deep-Pocketed Diaspora

haaretz

By Anshel Pfeffer

Published May 10, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 4 of 5)

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.