Former general Doron Almog tapped to head Jewish Agency, ending lengthy search

Former IDF general Doron Almog was nominated to take the reins of the Jewish Agency for Israel on Thursday, the group said, ending a nearly year-long search for a replacement for Isaac Herzog, who left the organization to become president of Israel.

Almog, 71, a past head of the Israel Defense Forces’ Southern Command, was widely seen as a consensus candidate with impeccable credentials, including an Israel Prize for lifetime achievement. Since leaving the military, he has dedicated his life to running a widely lauded rehabilitation village for physically and mentally disabled people in the Negev desert.

“Doron Almog represents everything that’s beautiful about Israel,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in a statement. “Doron embodies military and civilian prowess, deep love for the nation of Israel, for the land and for all humans. This is why I was glad to hand him the Israel Prize for his life’s work.”

Numerous attempts to find a replacement for Herzog failed over the past year as no candidate was unable to get the nine out of 10 votes necessary to secure the nomination from the selection committee. Almog, who was nominated by the Jewish Federations of North America, was chosen unanimously by the nominating committee, according to a Jewish Agency spokesperson.

Almog’s selection will be submitted to the Jewish Agency’s board of governors for approval at its upcoming meeting next month, which will largely be a formality. He is expected to officially enter the position in September.

“I am proud and excited about the trust and election,” Almog said in a statement after his nomination. “By working together, we will ignite flame and pride in our work for a future of hope for future generations.”

If approved, Almog will enter the position in a period of turmoil for the semi-governmental organization, which is tasked with encouraging and facilitating immigration to Israel, in light of the massive wave of migration from the former Soviet Union in the wake of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.

As of this week, over 25,000 people have immigrated to Israel from Ukraine and Russia since then in the largest wave of migration in some 30 years, according to the Immigration and Absorption Ministry.

In addition, the Jewish Agency is in the midst of a renewed mass immigration effort from Ethiopia, with plans to bring several thousand people to Israel in the coming months.

“We are in an important period with a jump in the numbers of new immigrants from around the world, and I am confident that Doron will contribute greatly to the Jewish world and to fulfilling this government’s immigration and absorption policies,” Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata said in a statement.

World Zionist Organization chairman Yaakov Hagoel has served as acting chairman of the Jewish Agency over the past year, a position that at times conflicted with his other, more political role as head of World Likud.

“I extend my congratulations to Almog on his nomination, and I am confident that he will lead the Jewish Agency with the same dedication and determination with which his predecessors in this position acted,” Hagoel said in a statement.

Michael Siegal, the outgoing head of the Jewish Agency’s board of governors, touted Almog’s bona fides.

“The fact that we got all 10 votes tells you that we did a good job in terms of presenting an excellent candidate,” Siegal told The Times of Israel over the phone shortly after Almog’s nomination.

Yet after 17 Ashkenazi male chairmen of the Jewish Agency going back to its founding, many hoped that the next head of the organization would bring a touch of diversity to the position.

“Would it have been nicer to have a woman? Would it have been nicer to have someone younger? Yes. All that’s true but you have to go with the candidate that you have,” Siegal said.

“This man has a distinguished career, he cares about the most vulnerable parts of Israeli society, he has fundraising capabilities, and he brings a level of credibility in Israeli society. I can’t say that anyone else brings those levels of qualifications to the job. He just doesn’t check the box of diversity for today’s society,” he said.

“But I can’t wait for that perfect candidate. They didn’t come down the road for a year. We have Almog who is an excellent representative of the things that the Jewish Agency cares about, which is Israeli civil society, connecting Jews around the world to Israel and aliyah,” Siegal added, using the Hebrew term for immigration to Israel.

Siegal noted that over the past year a number of female and Mizrachi candidates were considered but for one reason or another, they were rejected.

“None of the people were a perfect candidate. If they had been, they would have been chosen,” he said.

Somewhat wryly, Siegal noted that Almog was in fact unique from other candidates and past Jewish Agency leaders, who have almost exclusively come from the world of politics.

“Doron Almog is not a politician! Forget the diversity aspect, just that,” Siegal said with a chuckle.

Two other potential candidates that were reportedly considered for the position included Construction Minister Ze’ev Elkin and Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll. Former diplomat Mark Regev was also reportedly in the running. Over the past year, several names have been floated, including former Yesh Atid Knesset member and biblical scholar Ruth Calderon, former Likud minister Danny Danon and former Blue and White minister Omer Yankelevich, among many others.

Almog said he was only approached about the position three weeks ago.

“I was surprised by the offer three weeks ago. It wasn’t in my plans, but I did a ‘situational assessment’ with my wife and we decided to go for it, to take on one more mission for the State of Israel,” he told Army Radio.

“The Jewish Agency is a strategic asset and the relationship between the State of Israel and the Diaspora is a strategic relationship — half the [Jewish] people still live there. Our job is to reach every Jew in the world and lend a hand,” Almog said.

The selection process for Herzog’s replacement was repeatedly marred by politically motivated leaks from the nominating committee, with candidates’ names and deliberations about them being told to reporters in a bid to influence the proceedings.

“A lot of things in our committee were not held confidential, which is unfortunate,” Siegal said.

He said this prompted the committee to more tightly control information ahead of Thursday’s vote, though even still a number of names of potential candidates were leaked to various outlets.

Almog enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces in 1969, serving in the Paratroopers’ Reconnaissance Company — including during the famed 1976 raid on Entebbe — and rose through the military’s ranks over the next three and a half decades to the position of Southern Command chief, retiring in 2003.

After his release from the military, Almog established the rehabilitation village, known as Aleh Negev, largely due to his personal experiences caring for his son Eran, who had severe autism and physical disabilities.

Doron Almog puts a medal on a child from ALEH Jerusalem child at the Jerusalem Marathon. (Courtesy: Aleh)

Almog was at the center of international controversy in 2005 after Palestinian activists in the United Kingdom got a court to issue an arrest warrant for him over his role in the demolition of a Palestinian home in the Gaza Strip, which they said amounted to a war crime.

Almog was made aware of the arrest warrant after he and his wife touched down in the UK. To avoid an incident, he stayed on the plane and flew back to Israel on it. The arrest warrant was later rescinded.

Siegal said Almog would need to hit the ground running, with immigration spurts set off by the wars in Ukraine and Ethiopia at the top of his agenda.

“And those are just two things that we know about,” he said. “Who knows what the next thing will be?”

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