Sharansky at JAFI: Can He Move The Organization Forward?

Yesterday afternoon, in a room aptly named Zion Hall, the coronation of Natan Sharansky as Chair of the Executive of the Jewish Agency took place. But, despite the unanimous vote, anyone who reads too much into the love fest that followed severely misreads the events of the week – and particularly the previous twenty-four hours.

For what culminated in both Sharansky’s election and approval of the updated governance procedures for JAFI was partially about the raw use/abuse of power – and a real microcosm of contemporary life here in Israel. We watched as the [mostly] American fundraisers squared off against the ‘do-nothing’ hacks of the Israeli political establishment; we witnessed several instances of coalition politics and the continuing feud between Likud and Kadima (where the latter actually holds one seat more) interfering with the real work of the WZO and JAFI; we saw the Diaspora fundraisers push the Prime Minister to the wall; and we looked on as Natan Sharansky removed himself from the grasp of a prominent Diaspora philanthropist.

As to Sharansky, his election was an unplanned side-show to the events of the week. A move has been under way for close to two years to change the relationship between the WZO and JAFI. In its simplest form, JAFI and WZO will begin to function more as independent organizations, including in the ranks of senior professionals and budgetary needs. The WZO received a parting gift from JAFI worth $80-100 million – ownership of the Jewish Agency’s Tel Aviv headquarters building and the resulting rental and air rights income. Direct budget allocations end in 2013.

The WZO itself is adrift. First, no one is quite sure what their mission is today, or even should be going forward. Second, the failure of Israeli coalition politics to agree on how to ‘divy up’ the spoils had Kadima renege on an agreement negotiated earlier in the day thereby forcing the WZO professional leadership to continue in limbo for another year. And if the Americans weren’t happy with the previous arrangement, just wait until Shas enters the WZO picture next summer.

In fact, the Americans were so adamant about splitting the leadership role between JAFI and the WZO, [before formally nominating him] they insisted on a written pledge from Sharansky not to accept any other position concurrent to his JAFI role. Bibi told him not to sign; Sharansky balked, but didn’t walk, and eventually a slightly re-written letter was signed concurring.

There is no question Sharansky himself has a mixed agenda. On the one hand he was looking for redemption for his humiliating withdrawal from the same race four years ago. He also has a mixed legacy from his foray into Israeli politics; he clearly wants to succeed Shimon Peres as the next President of Israel and he sees the JAFI position as a natural stepping stone. And lastly, Sharansky was looking for a diplomatic way to remove himself from the unknown future of Adelson funding. Like other organizations where most, or even all, funding comes from one source life is precarious. Adelson’s financial problems have been front page news in Israel for a long time. The closing, while not unexpected, of The Adelson Family Foundation offices in Israel less than two weeks ago, increased concern as to the foundation’s future funding priorities.

All of which brings us to today:

Updated governance policies are now in place. Natan Sharansky has been elected Chair of the Executive. All that’s left is JAFI’s little task of defining their mission and strategic direction for the future.

It’s going to be an interesting year.