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Peres Joins Jewish Agency Fray with Attack on Diaspora Leaders

With a sharp attack this week on the Diaspora Jewish fundraising establishment, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres has joined the ongoing struggle for control over the Jewish Agency for Israel.

In doing so, he has sided the Israeli political parties and their allied Zionist movements against the Diaspora Jews who finance the budget of the Jewish Agency, the non-governmental organization that, among other tasks, brings immigrants to Israel and helps resettle them. In a statement issued this week, Peres charged that “the Zionist movement has reached a dead end by kowtowing to the fund-raisers” of the United Jewish Appeal.

He went on to blast the fund-raisers as “incapable of raising the funds required for immigrant absorption.”

“Seventy percent of the funds raised are not transmitted to Israel,” he claimed. “Yet the leaders of the fund-raising bodies demand a controlling voice over the leadership of the Jewish Agency, and the right to run Zionist affairs from overseas.”

Peres further called on the leaders of the Zionist parties in Israel, which are represented in the Jewish Agency through the World Zionist Organization, to intervene in what was happening in the Jewish Agency.

The “process of de-Zionization” now engulfing the Jewish Agency, he said, is the result, in part, of the apathy shown by the Israeli public and politicians in the life and organization of the Jewish Diaspora.

The foreign minister’s remarks escalated the long-running battle between the two camps that comprise the Jewish Agency: representatives of the WZO and representatives of the UJA and its counterparts worldwide.

Presently at issue, and mentioned by Peres in his statement, is the Diaspora fund-raisers’ demand to eliminate two senior positions in the Jewish Agency as a cost-cutting measure.

‘AT STAKE IS THE PROPER BALANCE’

Peres’ remarks followed a private letter sent last week by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to veteran UJA leader Max Fisher, opposing the abrogation of these posts.

“What’s at stake is the proper balance between Israel and the Diaspora, between fundraisers and the Zionists,” explained Seymour Reich, president of the new American Zionist Movement.

“Certainly the fund-raising establishment deserves a voice in the leadership in the Jewish Agency, but not a controlling voice,” he said. “I think the fund-raisers have been too aggressive. It’s time to pull back.”

The fund-raisers, however, continue to defend their proposals in the face of the attack from Peres.

The Diaspora-Israel partnership embodied in the Jewish Agency requires “a level of confidence in our ability to both improve the Jewish Agency and enhance its credibility to attract greater financial resources,” said Norman Lipoff.

Lipoff is chairman of the United Israel Appeal, the organizational bridge and financial conduit between UJA and the Jewish Agency.

He sits with Fisher on the evenly split six-member committee of fund-raisers and WZO leaders trying to resolve this and other outstanding disputes.

From Lipoff’s perspective, the two posts, chairman of the Immigration and Absorption Department and chairman of the Youth Aliyah Department, duplicate the responsibilities of the director-generals of those departments.

In keeping with longstanding WZO practice, department chairmen are appointed on the basis of political affiliation. The Zionists see the move to eliminate the posts as an attempt to reduce their influence in the Jewish Agency, which receives the bulk of the hundreds of millions of dollars American Jews send to Israel each year through the UJA campaign and its special Operation Exodus drive to aid immigrant resettlement.

THREATENED TO FLARE INTO ‘WORLD WAR’

The committee of the six top leaders of the two factions began meeting after the conflict several months ago threatened to flare into “world war.”

But in their most recent meeting two weeks ago, they were unable to reach an agreement on the dispute. And the statement from Peres indicates that the Zionists are once again pulling out their heaviest artillery.

For their part, the fund-raisers have let it be known that the contract which assigns the Jewish Agency as the recipient of UJA money raised for Israel will soon be up for renewal.

More than a week of Jewish Agency meetings begin in Jerusalem in Feb. 17, at which time both sides hope to resolve the issue.

When asked to speculate on the reason for Peres’ decision to enter the fray, one American familiar with the issues pointed out that the foreign minister is politically close to the imperiled head of the Immigration and Absorption Department, Uri Gordon.

The American further suggested that the foreign minister’s public criticism of the WZO for not standing up to the fund-raisers could reflect the fact that Simcha Dinitz, chairman of the WZO and the Jewish Agency, is not aligned with Peres but with his Labor Party rival, Rabin.

Peres’ comments regarding the small proportion of money passed on to Israel reflects a longstanding Israeli complaint. They say that all of the money raised by federations is raised in the name of Israel, but that too high a portion is kept by community federations to finance local needs and national Jewish agencies.

The UJA disputes Peres’ 70 percent figure.

“According to our figures, over the past eight years, 46 percent of the net proceeds have been transmitted to Israel,” said UJA spokesman Gerald Nagel.

That figure includes money transmitted to both the Jewish Agency and the much smaller programs run in Israel by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. But it excludes the additional 5 percent of net campaign proceeds the JDC spends aiding needy Jews around the world.

“From 1990 to 1992, $1.3 billion was trans- mitted to Israel, nearly $400 million more than any other three-year period. So I’m really at a loss to explain what he’s talking about,” said Nagel.

One person familiar with the figures said that there is a grain of truth to the foreign minister’s account — if one excludes UJA’s special Operation Exodus campaign. Then the amount of the federation campaigns that goes to the Jewish Agency alone is indeed down to roughly a third of the total.

But Nagel rejected the idea of ignoring the Operation Exodus money. “Those funds are all going to Israel, and it’s very unclear how any of these people can separate them,” he said.

“It’s hard-earned money by American Jews and hard-raised money by the federations,” he said.

Victor Gelb, a national vice chairman of the UJA and chairman of the United Israel Appeal’s Jewish Agency committee, said that if American Jewry proves incapable of raising the funds required for immigrant absorption, “it won’t be because of the lack of trying.

“If Mr. Peres has a better way of raising pledges and collecting cash, more power to him. I would think he has higher priorities as foreign minister.

However, added Gelb, “if he could spare any time speaking at special fund-raising events in the U.S. and Canada, I’m sure he would be most effective.”

(Contributing to this report was JTA correspondent David Landau in Jerusalem.)

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