An election for the next chairman of the World Zionist Organization appeared to come down, like so much else in Israel these days, to a fight over the Gaza disengagement plan.
The race pitted Ze’ev Bielski, a centrist member of the Likud Party who supports disengagement, against Natan Sharansky, another Likud Party member, who resigned from the Israeli Cabinet last month to protest Israel’s plan to dismantle Jewish settlements in Gaza and the northern West Bank.
The job was given to Bielski after a committee of American fund raisers rejected Sharansky’s candidacy shortly before the WZO’s larger membership was scheduled to vote on the matter. The committee of fund raisers represented the Jewish Agency for Israel, which shares a chairman and top leadership with the WZO.
Both Sharansky and the nine-person committee of fund raisers — known as the Advise and Consent Committee — said that their positions had nothing to do with disengagement. But most participants said the entire battle was rooted in Prime Minister Sharon’s controversial plan, which is set to begin in less than two months.
“This was a disengagement issue, and it played itself out as a disengagement issue,” said Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, which maintains a large presence in the WZO.
Yoffie said that soon after recently arriving in Jerusalem he received a phone call from Sharon, pushing Bielski’s candidacy. Sharansky entered the race at the behest of the World Likud union, which has opposed Sharon’s plan.
The World Zionist Organization is a federation of Zionist political and religious organizations from around the world. It was the force behind the creation of the State of Israel, but now it is dwarfed by its partner organization, the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency for Israel, which governs relations between Israel and the Diaspora and promotes immigration to Israel throughout the world. The WZO has a budget of some $13 million a year, while the Jewish Agency controls about $350 million.
Sallai Meridor had announced he would be stepping down as chairman of the WZO and the Jewish Agency at this month’s annual meetings, a year before his four-year term expired; Meridor was said to have done this in part to head off Sharansky’s chance to become chairman. The election to choose the interim chairman who will finish out Meridor’s term was held June 24.
The decision by the Jewish Agency leaders to reject Sharansky in advance of the election drew protests, even from supporters of Bielski’s bid.
“My impression is that this was done behind the classic closed doors,” said Kenneth Bob, president of Ameinu, the American affiliate of the World Labor Zionist Movement, which supported Bielski. “It would have been better to leave the choice up to the WZO.”
A much more strongly worded criticism of the process came from a new member of the World Zionist Organization, the New York-based Russian American Jews for Israel.
“The manner in which [Sharansky’s] candidacy was handled is reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s electoral system and resembles today Iran’s political situation,” a release from RAJI announced.
The Advise and Consent Committee is the primary way in which the Jewish Agency has a voice in choosing the chairman. The committee met June 23, on the eve of the scheduled WZO election, and reaffirmed that it was only supporting Bielski’s candidacy.
“The prime minister stated very clearly there was only one candidate he was supporting,” said Carole Solomon, who chairs the Jewish Agency’s board of governors and is a member of the Advise and Consent Committee. “We did not base our decision on political consideration.”
The WZO’s Zionist General Council, which held the elections, passed a resolution June 24 pushing for a discussion with the Jewish Agency for Israel about the advise and consent process.
It was widely assumed that Bielski would have won the election, even if Sharansky had participated. After the World Likud union nominated Sharansky — and sued Sharon to stop him from supporting Bielski — the Reform and Conservative movements promoted Bielski’s candidacy.
Bielski’s election was not the only victory for liberal forces in the WZO. A resolution was passed on the afternoon of June 24 curtailing the responsibilities of the WZO’s settlement division, which works in the Palestinian territories. In March, a federal prosecutor released a government-sanctioned study reporting that the settlement division had helped establish illegal outposts. Right-wing members of the WZO had opposed the resolution.
Both the WZO and the Jewish Agency have been struggling to maintain support and interest in the Diaspora at a time when identification with Israel appears to be falling in a number of surveys. Bielski, who was previously mayor of Ra’anana, was praised across the board for his organizational abilities and for his past efforts to work with Diaspora Jewry.
As chairman of the Jewish Agency, Bielski plans to focus on three major goals: to bring the remainder of the Falash Mura community from Ethiopia to Israel, to push immigration “by choice” from Western countries, and to help bridge the growing socioeconomic gap between rich and poor Israeli children.