After intense behind-the-scenes wrangling, the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors this week approved the appointment of Yehiel Leket as its acting chairman.
Leket, the 52-years-old head of the agency’s Youth Aliyah department, immediately took over the duties and office of Simcha Dinitz, who took a leave of absence last week after being indicated. Dinitz was charged with aggravated fraud and abuse of public trust for the alleged misuse of Jewish Agency-issued credit cards.
Leket is to serve as the acting chairman until June 10, after which the board plans to elect a permanent chairman. Leket, however, must have the approval of Board Chairman Mendel Kaplan to be a candidate for the permanent post.
These are the conditions of a compromise reached after painstaking negotiation between Kaplan, representing the Diaspora fund-raisers, and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin who, as head of the Labor Party, backed Leket, a Laborite.
In an interview, Leket said he went along with the compromise to help heal the rifts between the fund-raisers and the Zionists, who are in conflict over the organization and future direction of the Agency. Leket said he is eager only to get the agency back to “business as usual.”
The struggle over who should fill the post chairman, even on a temporary basis, reflects the complicated organizational structure of the $500-million-a-year agency, which is the primary recipient of money raised for Israel by the United Jewish Appeal.
The agency’s structure reflects two separate balances of power. One mirrors Israeli politics, with the Labor Party, which Dinitz formerly represented in the Knesset, currently wielding more power than Likud.
The other is between leaders of the Diaspora fund-raising organizations that pay the bills, and the Israelis and their Diaspora Zionist allies, who have an equal say in setting policy. The Jewish Agency chairman and other senior officials are chosen by the Israeli and Diaspora Zionist Organization, but must be ratified by the fund-raisers.
Many of the fund-raisers were against Leket’s assumption of the temporary chairmanship. They feared he would use it as a springboard for the permanent post and they felt he did not qualify as the “man of stature” they want for the job.
Some preferred that Treasurer Hanan Ben-Yehuda remain in the temporary post until an election could be held for a more illustrious permanent chairman. The Agency’s bylaws call for the treasurer to fill in automatically for an absent chairman.
But Yen-Yehuda is a member of the Likud party and some stalwart Laborites were opposed to his holding the reins informally for even a few months. The Diaspora leaders then tried to press Leket into agreeing not to be a candidate for the permanent post, but he refused and was backed by the prime minister.
Insiders believe that the explicit veto power of Kaplan in the agreement allows him to save face with his fund-raiser constituents, who have been frustrated over the slow pace of the Dinitz case.
The investigation, of course, has been in the hands of the Israeli legal establishment. But Kaplan has been the uncomfortable position of having to explain and defend the process to the Diaspora. He also had to explain why Dinitz did not resign sooner.
Perhaps inevitably, Kaplan has been seen as partly responsible for the failure of the Jewish Agency to take more decisive action on an affair that has done considerable damage to its image.
“I understood Mendel’s situation and was ready to pay a public price to help him,” said Leket, explaining his willingness to compromise.
“We’ve got a very fragile image” as a result of the Dinitz affair, said one fund-raising professional, although 1993 was still “the best cash year the Jewish Agency has had in years,” he noted.
“Our American leadership has gotten a black eye on this,” he said.
“As a matter of fair play, (the board) felt it couldn’t move” on forcing Dinitz to resign, he added. As a result, some of the federations believed the board was dragging its feet. “Everyone felt frustrated,” Leket said.
“This is a compromise,” said UJA’s executive vice president, Rabbi Brian Lurie, of the Leket arrangement. “The fund-raisers would have preferred that an outstanding permanent person be appointed. An interim appointment is not something we could have desired. Unfortunately, it was not possible,” given the timetables required for an election.
Leket, in a private interview on his first morning in Dinitz’ office, agreed it would be best to have a permanent chairman at the helm. “Anyone concerned with the interest of the Jewish agency has to try to do his utmost to finish this period as soon as possible,” he said.
But he disputed claims that he is not a suitable chairman because he is not internationally known, claiming a low-key style of consensus to making waves through headlines.
“It is easier to get a reputation by saying we should abolish the Jewish Agency” than by “being loyal to the institution,” said Leket.
He refrained from going to the media, he noted, despite the public popularity he would have won, during some of the difficult reforms he instigated in the settlement division of the World Zionist Organization, which he headed between 1989 and 1992. Leket clearly wants the chance to run for the post in June, but denies he will be forced to campaign for it between now and then.
“If I campaigned, I would have no chance to get the consent” of Kaplan and the board, he said. The best campaign will be to reduce the tensions between the fund-raisers and the Israelis and to accomplish the work of the agency, he said.
He brings to the post 20 years of experience in public life, “leadership, expressed by bringing people together,” and “courage to introduce reforms” through evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, means, he said.
“I believe that what the Jewish Agency needs today is someone who knows the business and how to run it, who knows what changes are needed,” Leket said.
It does not need, he said, someone who thinks he is on the level of the prime minister. “A man who has a reputation from the past is not always the best one to contribute to the needs of tomorrow,” he said.
“Leket is a real leader and he has proved it,” said one member of the Labor Party’s Central Committee and a Leader of Zionist movement. “He has wisdom, strong convictions and the ability to fight for his ideas.
“He knows the Jewish world and the Jewish Agency and he has plans,” he continued. “He will be able to stand up to Mendel (Kaplan), while a very important personality is only some kind of decoration completely in” Kaplan’s hands.
Leket served as chairman of the World Labor Zionist Movement from 1982 to 1989, as secretary-general of the Labor Zionist Movement from 1978 to 1982, and secretary-general of the Young Leadership of the Israel Labor Party from 1969 to 1975. He briefly served as a member of Knesset in 1977 and was the head of an aliyah mission in North America from 1975 to 1976.
Kaplan said he would decide in the coming months whether to give his consent to Leket’s candidacy, but he refused to say how he would arrive at the decision.
Meanwhile, Kaplan wrote a memo to Rabin saying that Dinitz had made it clear this week he would not “stand in the way” of an election of a permanent chairman in June.