Dinitz’s Trial Further Batters Image of Beleaguered Jewish Agency

The trial of Jewish Agency Chairman Simcha Dinitz, which began last week, promises to be a difficult ordeal for a man who took the perquisites of power for granted and for an institution already battered by charges of being inefficient and outmoded.

Dinitz stands charged with aggravated fraud and breach of public trust. His alleged crime was that he charged $22,000 in personal expenses over a four-year period to credit cards for which the Jewish Agency picked up the bill.

Dinitz, who took a paid leave of absence from the Agency to prepare his defense, has pleaded innocent to the charges, which carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

He has since paid back the money and claims it was all an oversight due to sloppy bookkeeping practices.

According to Agency rules, executives are to be billed for any expenses not specifically claimed as work-related, and his should automatically have been deducted from his salary, Dinitz claims.

In fact, Dinitz failed to file the proper reports, and the Agency reimbursed him for all of his expenses.

The prosecutor, Shimon Dolan, argues the affair was not a one-time stumble, but a systematic and intentional effort by Dinitz to defraud the Agency for his personal gain.

Dinitz, he says, took advantage of his status and the confidence placed in him as head of the Agency.

In any case, for four days each week, the 65-year-old former ambassador to the United States and protege of former Prime Minister Golda Meir must sit in a small and dingy courtroom in the Jerusalem District Court building in eastern Jerusalem and watch his fate be decided.

On the first day of the trial, Dinitz sat soberly in a grey suit, listening intently to the remarks of the prosecutor, occasionally shaking his head and taking notes.

Members of his family and a few faithful allies were present, along with the expected bevy of reporters.

HEAVY COVERAGE IN ISRAELI MEDIA

The Israeli media coverage of the trial’s opening was heavy. In a few of the daily newspapers, the pages of section fronts were filled with the story accompanied by big color photos of a grim-looking Dinitz. But subsequent coverage has been lighter and more technical as the testimony itself bogs down into details of Agency accounting procedures.

Early coverage of the affair in the Israeli media was marked by the almost gleeful feeding frenzy inevitably attached to the fall of a man who allegedly misused his power and position.

But now that Dinitz sits alone day after day on the defendant’s bench, touches of pathos, tragedy and even compassion have crept into the stories on the case.

At the highly politicized Jewish Agency, Dinitz has plenty of detractors. Even those who like him concede that his arrogance has made him many enemies.

At the same time, all recognize that for now, Dinitz’s fate is inextricably linked with that of the institution he officially still heads.

All concede the affair has hurt and will continue to hurt the Agency as long as the trial lasts — and it is expected to last a few months. The prosecution alone plans to call at least two dozen witnesses, and the first witness was still being cross-examined on the fourth day.

Jewish Agency officials, none of whom would speak about the case for the record, are sure Dinitz will defend himself by putting the Agency on trial alongside him — and they are girding themselves for it.

They anticipate Dinitz’s lawyer will argue that his client’s fast and loose behavior with expenses was simply a reflection of the Agency’s norms and practices, and nothing out of the ordinary.

By early this week, it was clear the defense was headed in that direction, although it was less clear the judge would be convinced by this line of argument.

During his prolonged cross-examination of the first witness, Nadav Shukrun, defense attorney Uri Wagman tried to show that excessive travel expenses and lax accountability were standard at the Agency. Shukrun was responsible for expense reimbursements of the Agency’s department of emissaries from 1991 to 1994.

But Judge Shalom Brenner appeared to indicate he was not buying the defense’s rationale. According to reports of the trial, he said the department’s improper operation did not automatically exonerate the defendant’s behavior.

WIDE PRACTICE ‘DOESN’T MAKE IT PERMISSIBLE’

The fact that a practice is widespread “does not make it a permissible one,” the judge said.

This week, Shukrun’s testimony implicated the Jewish Agency as a place where lavish spending was the norm. He said emissaries were routinely given highly inflated advances when they traveled, while Wagman showed there were instances of executives being reimbursed for trips without submitting any receipts.

“There is no doubt there will be an impact on the Jewish Agency,” said one Agency official, “but it is too early to measure the damage.”

One thing is certain, he added. It is not only the image of the Agency which is at stake, but the very “willingness to contribute (money) through the Jewish Agency.”

The timing of the trial is not good, another official said.

The Agency’s Board of Governors is scheduled to convene here later this month, and the Diaspora fund-raisers in attendance will be exposed to a near-daily barrage of negative publicity about the Agency.

Board of Governors Chairman Mendel Kaplan may also find himself on the defensive.

Kaplan initially adopted a low-key approach to the affair, determining that Dinitz made an inadvertent error.

But the Board is unlikely to take official action this month on a permanent replacement for Dinitz, who is expected to vacate his post formally by the end of year.

Sources say the tenure of Acting Chairman Yehiel Leket will probably be extended until February, at which time a new permanent chairman will be installed.

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