JERUSALEM (Jun. 27)
The annual assembly of the Jewish Agency for Israel convened here this week under the heavy cloud of a police investigation into financial fraud allegedly conducted by the chairman of its Executive, Simcha Dinitz.
The delegates arrived here over the weekend for five days of deliberations on issues ranging from immigrant absorption to Zionist education. But many said the Dinitz affair had climbed to the top of the unofficial agenda.
“It is the topic of conversation around the coffee tables, at the bar, at dinner and on walks,” said Alan Markuvitz of Milwaukee, an outgoing member of the Board of Governors.
Delegates say privately that Board of Governors Chairman Mendel Kaplan is under tremendous pressure, especially from Jewish community federations in the United States, to convince Dinitz to step aside until the investigation is complete.
Federation leaders say the affair is hurting the fund-raising effort for Israel at a time when the United Jewish Appeal and local campaigns are already difficult enough.
“Mendel has been warned that major federations will not hold still,” said one assembly participant who did not want his name published.
“The leadership of the agency is being tested now, lay and professional, Israel and Diaspora,” said Howard Weisband, Jewish Agency secretary-general, but “I believe we’re going to come out stronger for it.”
“Everybody is very concerned,” said Audrey Citak, a World Zionist Organization delegate from the World Council of Synagogues. “People have been waiting for the ax to fall and are still waiting. We don’t know how it will affect the workings of the WZO,” which Dinitz also chairs.
“The affair is very difficult,” she continued. “There is an element of possible mistrust of someone who has held our trust for a very long time.”
“Not that we’re seeking to prove him guilty,” she added. “But in our heart, there’s an element of uncertainty.”
“It’s at the stage where people are saying Simcha should be told to find a way to step aside with dignity,” said another source.
AN EFFORT TO HARM AGENCY’S WORK?
For his part, Kaplan has been telling the delegates that Dinitz cannot be judged guilty on the basis of allegations alone.
He also has explained, according to sources present at a weekend briefing for the United Israel Appeal, that the standards of the West do not apply in Israel, where it is not untoward for officials under police investigation to continue to hold office.
Claims that Dinitz misused Jewish Agency money have been common knowledge inside and outside the agency for some months.
In February, the Board of Governors was presented with a comptroller’s report that referred to irregularities in the chairman’s spending practices. It was followed by an opinion issued by the agency’s legal adviser that there was no bad intent on Dinitz’s part.
Following that meeting, a Likud Knesset member, Limor Livnat, filed a police complaint about the alleged abuses, triggering the current investigation, which is expected to conclude in the coming weeks.
While the affair has continued to nag at the Jewish Agency leadership, it was thrust into the limelight Friday by a painstakingly detailed expose in the Jerusalem Post weekend magazine.
The article’s publication coincided with the arrival of most of the Diaspora assembly members.
“According to documents and dozens of interviews,” the article stated, “Dinitz used agency funds to live in the lap of luxury and travel like a king.
“In the guise of business trips and despite warnings from senior agency officials, Dinitz took his wife around the world, wined and dined on a pleasure cruise in Russia, used his agency credit card to buy personal goods, and rented a car and driver for a ride of less than 200 meters.”
Dinitz says he has been advised by his attorney not to comment on the allegations in the case. But sources close to him say the piece is filled with inaccuracies and that he plans to refute many points in it.
A statement issued by his spokesman said the article was an obvious effort “to harm the leadership of the Jewish Agency and the vital work it is performing.”
AGENCY MUST ‘CONFRONT THE ISSUES’
Dinitz was able to take comfort in the fact that, in the face of recent calls by a few Labor Party members to step aside until the probe is finished, he has received the strong public backing of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and other party leaders.
In a briefing Sunday for the Board of Governors, Kaplan said he would not comment on “the issue,” but he advised members to keep the affair in perspective. He urged them to stick to the official Jewish Agency agenda and not be “dictated to by outside forces” that “attempt to undermine” the agency’s work.
Sources present at the United Israel Appeal briefing Saturday night said Kaplan confessed he had been struggling for six months with how to proceed on the matter. His struggle, he reportedly said, was over how to balance the damage the affair might do to Dinitz personally against the damage it might do to the agency.
Secretary-General Weisband said what he has heard from delegates is that in the face of “listening to or reading allegations in the paper, we need an (internal) mechanism to be able to know what is factual and to be able to respond.”
Precisely such a mechanism was attempted this week by Kaplan. According to informed sources, it would have called on Judge Abraham Gafni, a UIA delegate from Philadelphia, to look at each of the statements in the Post article and determine the accuracies of the allegations.
But legal advisers apparently quashed the proposal immediately, saying it might involve an obstruction of justice.
Weisband conceded that the story in the Post has done damage. Since February, “we learned that the agency itself must confront the issues and make decisions for itself,” he said. Not doing so “directly affects” the credibility of the agency and the campaign.
“Perhaps had an internal process been set in motion earlier,” he said, “the article might have been reporting on the results of the process rather than the allegations themselves, and that would have put the agency in a stronger position.”