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Jewish Agency Assembly Ends with Hope That ‘pro Ject Renewal’ Can Finally Get off Ground

Leaders of the Jewish Agency from abroad who attended the Agency’s Assembly here last week seem more hopeful now than they were in the past that “Project Renewal” is finally getting off the ground.

The project, which calls for the refurbishing of some 160 slum areas throughout Israel, at an initially-estimated cost of $1.2 billion, has been held up virtually since its inception nearly two years ago by wrangles over authority and powers between the Agency and the government, within the government itself, and between both and the local authorities.

According to Max Fisher, chairman of the Jewish Agency Board of Governors, pressure caused by dissatisfaction among United Jewish Appeal and United Israel Appeal leaders overseas, coupled with pressure from community-leaders in Israel whose communities are among “renewal target areas,” has finally forced some energetic stock-taking.

During the Assembly, an agreement was reached between the various agencies on a streamlined breakdown of authority for the project in Jerusalem. Jewish Agency leaders are more hopeful than ever that the Jerusalem example is about to be followed country-wide.

JERUSALEM AGREEMENT

The agreement, reached between Absorption Minister David Levy, Mayor Teddy Kollek of Jerusalem, Deputy Premier Yigael Yadin and representatives of Jewish organizations overseas, sets up a joint government municipal corporation to carry out “Project Renewal” in the capital. The actual work will be done by the Prazot Corp. which is jointly owned by the government and the city. Spokesmen for the city said however that Prazot could not cope with the immense rehabilitation work necessary, particularly social problems. According to Kollek, the municipality alone is equipped to handle those complex details. But, he said, if the government insists on doing the job he could no longer fight it.

The agreement followed a demonstration last Sunday by residents of the Katomin quarter, a slum neighborhood where Levy, who is also Housing Minister, promised that work would start immediately. Yaacov Yona, head of a local citizens group, gave the government and the city 100 days to start moving. “If by then Project Renewal is not off and away, we will start riots that will make Sunday’s demonstrations look like child’s play,” he threatened.

Irwin Field, national chairman of the UJA, said in a carefully measured understatement that, “American Jews sometimes find it difficult to realize that humanitarian efforts for Jews, when they are undertaken in Israel, are susceptible to political considerations. They are sometimes dismayed at the extent to which decisions in Israel are politicized … Project Renewal is an example of this.”

POLITICAL EXPEDIENCY DECRIED

In an address to the Assembly last week, Field demanded that “renewal not be a subject of political expediency.” Speaking to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency Thursday, he indicated greater optimism than in the past that this message has finally been absorbed and that “everyone involved will give a little” for the greater good of the project.

Field pointed out that a social rehabilitation project of this scope and magnitude is unprecedented anywhere in the world. Despite this, and despite the lengthy teething pains, he professed himself convinced that “renewal” would succeed. Field, moreover, sees “renewal” as a “catalyst” for the process of change and improvement that he wants to see happen in the Jewish Agency. He believes the Agency’s involvement in a scheme of these dimensions, with the close participation of Jews abroad as well as of the Agency’s departments in Israel, will lead to a quickening of the pace of improvement in the Agency’s professional abilities and performance – and, as a consequence, to an improvement of the Agency’s image here and abroad.

Fisher, in a separate interview with JTA last week, said he had been “finally convinced” by Premier Menachem Begin personally “that the government intends to live up to the agreements” reached with the Agency on “Project Renewal.”I am a great deal more confident now,” Fisher said, “than I was before I came.” The Detroit industrialist and prominent Republican met twice with Begin last week and “renewal” was high on the list of their topics of conversation.

CONTROVERSY CENTERS ON LEVY

Much of the tension between the Agency and the government over “renewal” has centered around the figure of Levy. At the Cabinet meeting last Sunday, Levy accused the Agency of “seeking to set up a state within a state” and charged that the Agency was withholding funds raised for “renewal.” His tempestuous appearance before the Assembly delegates last Tuesday was one of the more rowdy moments of this restless and exciting Assembly. He flayed the Agency for bureaucratic sloth and for playing politics and vowed that he would fight to retain the Absorption Ministry as the operative authority in the field. He has been in constant dispute with Agency chairman Leon Dulzin who has repeatedly demanded the abolition of the Absorption Ministry.

Despite this, both Fisher and Field, in interviews with JTA, offered praise and high assessments of Levy, the self-made Herut politician from Beit-Shean. “He is one of the brightest men I have come across,” said Field. Fisher, though not fluent in Hebrew, still found himself powerfully impressed by Levy’s rhetorical style at the Assembly session. Both diaspora leaders are making it their business to establish direct and personal ties with Levy whom they recognize as a powerful and rising political force and authentic representative of a large constituency within Israeli society.

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