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Diaspora Leaders Defer Decision on Leading Jewish Agency Candidates

A key committee of Diaspora philanthropists has postponed a decision on the two candidates who have emerged so far to head the Jewish Agency for Israel and the World Zionist Organization.

Sources close to the process said the committee deferred its decision at the request of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The prime minister has been a staunch supporter of Yehiel Leket, the agency’s acting chairman, in the face of opposition from some Diaspora fund-raisers.

The 10-member “advice and consent” committee of the Jewish Agency interviewed Leket and the other candidate, Labor Knesset member Avraham Burg, at a Manhattan hotel on Tuesday.

The committee, representing the Diaspora fund-raiser component of the Jewish Agency’s Diaspora-Zionist partnership, is charged with vetting candidates to be the next chairman of the executive of the Jewish Agency and WZO.

The actual appointment will be made by the WZO, which will elect the candidate nominated by the Israeli Labor Party. ..TX.-The race between Leket and Burg comes at a defining juncture for the Jewish Agency and WZO.

The WZO, founded to establish a Jewish state, approaches its centennial with its continued existence in question. Few members of the younger generations in either Israel or the Diaspora have been attracted to an international Jewish organization predicated on political Zionism and divided along Israeli party lines.

At the same time, the Jewish Agency, having resettled more than half-a-million Jews from the former Soviet Union in the past few years, faces the prospect of continuing cuts in its $5OO million budget.

The agency is largely funded by money raised for Israel by American federations, which have increasingly been keeping more of their money at home for local programs.

And continuing to hang over the agency is the specter of corruption and mismanagement left by former Chairman Simcha Dinitz.

Dinitz was indicted last year for aggravated fraud and abuse of public trust related to the alleged abuse of Jewish Agency credit cards. After taking a leave of absence, he formally stepped down at the end of December and is now on trial in Jerusalem.

In a related investigation, police have recommended that Jewish Agency-WZO treasurer Meir Sheetrit be indicted for similar crimes.

The 53-year-old Leket, a longtime Jewish Agency-WZO official, became acting chairman when Dinitz was indicted. He is widely credited for restoring the organization’s morale and for correcting abuses during his 11-month tenure as acting chairman.

But his quest to succeed Dinitz has been consistently opposed by some leading Diaspora philanthropists, foremost among them South African industrialist Mendel Kaplan.

Kaplan is chairman of the agency’s Board of Governors, representing the lay leadership in the organization. He has argued that the agency needs a high- profile Israeli public figure at the agency’s helm who is able to inspire Diaspora donors.

Such a figure would restore the luster to the agency’s image in both Israel and abroad and, most importantly, help stem the decline of funds raised by the United Jewish Appeal and local federations for the Jewish Agency.

In contrast to Leket, Burg, 40, is an outsider, with no management experience. But his abilities as a speaker, and his abilities to articulate new directions in Israel-Diaspora relations, has reportedly made him the candidate of choice among American federation leaders.

UJA Executive Vice President Rabbi Brian Lurie, who sources say has pushed strongly for Burg, would say only that, “I want the best possible candidate to lead the Jewish Agency.”

In an informal meeting earlier this month with directors of the largest federations, Burg “came across as attractive,” according to one of the directors.

“Burg reflects an image of progressivism – a cutting-edge type of person,” said this source.

“The Jewish Agency is doing a lot of good work,” added another federation director. “The question is basically the structure of the agency, and the vision of the agency. People were hungry for a new person who could project a new vision, and who could command respect of the Israelis.”

Burg is one of a number of young Labor Party mavericks who are jump-starting their political careers by shaking up old Israeli institutions.

Among them is former Health Minister Haim Ramon, who bolted the party to launch a successful reformist campaign to head the Histadrut labor federation.

Assuming Ramon succeeds in overhauling the discredited Histadrut, observers expect him to rejoin the Labor Party and end up as a likely candidate for prime minister in a few years.

Similarly, the Jewish Agency would give Burg both a public platform and a chance to prove his ability to modernize an organization in low repute among the Israeli public.

Paradoxically, the broadsides another member of the young guard has been making against the Jewish Agency may rebound to Burg’s favor.

Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin – like Ramon, politically close to Burg – earned the wrath of federation leaders with repeated criticisms of the Jewish Agency as obsolete and outmoded.

“If Burg’s elected, Beilin can’t criticize anymore. He has to give Burg a chance,” said one person close to Burg. By contrast, the election of Leket leaves the agency vulnerable to Beilin’s continued anti-establishment attacks.

In an effort to utilize the strengths of both candidates the committee that met this week in New York suggested to Leket and Burg that the position be split in two, according to sources.

This scenario would have Burg as chairman and Leket in an administrative role as chairman of operations. Leket reportedly rejected the proposal.

Beyond these questions of vision and competency, the ever-strained relationship between Diaspora Jewish donors and Israeli politicians is playing a major role in this drama.

Rabin has supported Leket, who has long been loyal to the prime minister. Rabin’s backing has probably been crucial in maintaining Leket’s candidacy in the face of continued Diaspora opposition.

Beyond the authority and deference the Diaspora leaders give to the Israeli prime minister, Rabin, in his capacity as Labor Party leader, has a strong say in the selection process.

Whomever the Labor Party nominates for the post is assured victory when the WZO formally elects the chairman in February. The Diaspora philanthropists have a veto over the Labor Party choice, however.

After interviewing both candidates Tuesday, the “advice and consent” committee announced only that it had “not reached a final decision.”

Sources said several representatives of the committee would likely meet with Rabin in February before the Labor Party vote.

Participants in this week’s meeting who were contacted referred questions to Kaplan.

After leaving New York, Kaplan met with Rabin in Jerusalem on Thursday en route to his home in South Africa. He could not be reached for comment.

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