Editor’s Notes: What if Meridor started a trend?

By David Horovitz May 20, 2005

Nobody in positions of power and influence voluntarily relinquishes their grip. Or, rather, nobody did until now…

If hearing is believing, then Sallai Meridor’s unexpected resignation after six years as head of the Jewish Agency is the noblest, and thus most puzzling, act of ministerial-level voluntary spotlight-spurning since… well, I’m hard-pushed to find a precedent.

I was going to say Benny Begin’s departure from the Knesset after the May 1999 elections, or flash even further back, to April 1977 and Yitzhak Rabin’s aborted first premiership.

But while it can fairly be stated that Rabin jumped, he was certainly being pushed – by the attorney-general at the time, Aharon Barak, over Leah’s breach of the law in failing to close down a US bank account when the pair returned home from Rabin’s Washington ambassadorship.

And though no one forced geologist-turned-politician Begin Jr. to flee parliament, his campaign for the prime ministership had flopped and his National Union party had underperformed in the elections, leading this most straight-talking of legislators to observe, with typically droll self-deprecation, that he was quitting public life because he no longer had a public.

By contrast, the way Meridor’s been telling it to colleagues, his departure is implausibly straightforward – or would be implausible were it not for his own personal integrity and earnest record, which merits at least a temporary suspension of cynical disbelief.

He has not been forced out. Skeletons are not about to clatter out of closets. He has not been overwhelmed by a sudden urge to spend more time with his family.

He has, rather, concluded that after six years in the position of de-facto head of world Jewry, it’s time for someone else to put the Jewish people to rights. He believes that he has overseen a reorientation of the Agency, with a vital new focus on encouraging and facilitating ‘aliya of choice’ superseding the previous stress on ‘aliya of necessity.’ And he has promoted the platforms to encourage that new aliya, particularly of young immigrants, via the growth of short-term programs such as birthright israel and the Israel Experience, and the gearing-up for the longer-term Masa project.

Meridor had in any case decided not to seek a third term as Agency chief. He opted to leave right now instead of seeing out his current term through to summer 2006, he’s been saying, so that his successor can enjoy the security of many years in the post and get to work straightaway on the fund-raising and other efforts as the Agency juggernaut changes course.

SOME HAVE speculated that Meridor’s been frustrated at the failure to secure sufficient funding to bring all 25,000 or so of those youngsters who would have joined the birthright chorus this year. Not so, insist Agency sources, who note that the 15,000 birthright figure for 2005 is none too shabby.

Others have suggested that the timing of his departure was cooked up with, or imposed by, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to ensure that Natan Sharansky, recently resigned from the cabinet because of his opposition to disengagement, could not take a job for which he might seem perfect a year from now but for which he is, pre-pullout, too divisive a figure. Absolutely not, say those in Meridor’s orbit. No backroom deal. No impositions.

And finally, there are those who believe Meridor is being groomed for that apparently soon-to-be-vacant position of Our Man in Washington – tasked with the mission of wooing US politicians, the American public and the Jewish community (simple) while simultaneously satisfying both his own prime minister and foreign minister (almost impossible).

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom is adamant that current envoy Danny Ayalon will be coming home this summer. Sharon, for his part, appreciates Meridor’s forthright support for disengagement (as expressed by the Agency chairman in a February interview with the Post. ‘I’m for disengagement,’ Meridor said at the time, ‘for the reason that we are ensuring the future of Israel as a Jewish democratic state… We need to make a very painful decision, of compromising on some of the Land of Israel, to ensure that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state for future generations’).

Again, though, the inside story is a resolute no. No formal approaches about the Washington job. Not even informal soundings-out.

Meridor’s innocent explanation of his departure has been received with such skepticism precisely because he is so strikingly straying from the depressing norms, here and abroad. ‘Even the Agency’s tea-lady in Dimona doesn’t believe it,’ somebody close to the Agency remarked to a Post reporter this week.

BUT JUST imagine… just imagine if he started a trend:

That Washington envoy’s job: Whatever the rights and wrongs of the demeaning soap opera now playing out between Ambassador Ayalon, his wife Ann, their unhappy domestic staff, the Ayalon aide who’s losing his job, Foreign Minister Shalom, his socialite wife Judy Shalom Nir Mozes and – who could forget? – Madonna, the plain fact is that Ayalon and Shalom aren’t talking, and that can’t be good for Israeli diplomacy.

What if Ayalon made like Meridor and voluntarily vacated his post? A new ambassador, with no personal baggage, could take over and ensure serenity now (to quote George’s dad) – smooth diplomatic seas ahead of the disengagement storm.

What if Shlomo Amar got the bug, too? If the Shalom- Ayalon saga is our soap, then the chief rabbi, his wife, their son and the assault on the daughter’s boyfriend is our crime story, and it hardly reflects glory on the office of the chief rabbi. What if Amar were to voluntarily stand aside and make way for a new man or, better yet, enable the unification of the rabbinate under a single leader, ridding us of the divisive anachronism of ethnic rabbinical leadership in a country that strives to erase divisions between Sephardi and Ashkenazi Israelis?

What if politicians, at home and further afield, followed Meridor’s lead? You’ll doubtless have your own choices of Israeli leaders who, rather than holding on for that final stretch, might, a la Meridor, usefully make way for energetic replacements who can confidently expect many years at the top.

Think of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Mohammad Khatami in Iran. If only Arafat had chosen this course…. And shouldn’t Bashar Assad, pushed out of Lebanon and losing his grip on Syria, make like Meridor, too?

It’s all entirely unrealistic, of course, and unfair, too. Unrealistic, because, unfortunately, nobody in such positions of power and influence, however plain and irretrievable their failure, relinquishes them without a struggle. And unfair because Meridor is not a failure. He is departing a Jewish Agency if not transformed, then certainly enhanced, by his years there.

He was highly instrumental in the Israel Emergency Appeal that raised $350 million at the height of this round of conflict with the Palestinians, personally central to the aliya of the Falash Mura from Ethiopia, and has pressed consistently for more viable conversion procedures for hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish Israeli immigrants from the FSU.

And while such programs as birthright and the Nefesh B’Nefesh immigration drive were not Agency initiatives, Masa, which formally launches on Sunday week with a goal of bringing 20,000 youngsters to Israel per year on substantive programs, is his project, designed not only to foster aliya but, crucially, to also bolster Diaspora Jewish identity and the connection to Israel.

One last thing, though: If Meridor does turn up as Israel’s next ambassador to Washington, let no one blame journalists in future for doubting even the most seemingly upright public figures.

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