Conference of Presidents Marks 40th with Annual Mission to Israel

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations marked its 40th anniversary last month with its annual leadership mission to Israel.

The trip came at a critical time in Israel-Diaspora relations and in the Middle East peace process, issues that dominated many of the meetings held by the group.

But despite some strains between the American Jewish and Israeli communities, the mission received the full attention of Israeli officials, especially those in the Foreign Ministry.

Boasting its largest delegation ever — 80 representatives from 42 out of the 50 member organizations — the Conference of Presidents met with Israel’s “who’s who,” and apparently had to turn down a host of has-beens and would-bes who were also eager to speak to them.

The crammed four-day itinerary, from Feb. 26 through March 1, included meetings with foreign ambassadors and Israeli dignitaries, including Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and President Ezer Weizman.

Besides their discussions with Israeli leaders, the group also met with Ahmed Karia, also knows as Abu Alaa, head of the economic division of the Palestinian Authority. The mission also took a trip to Jordan, where the group met with King Hussein.

“The itinerary and the people we meet with are indicative of the importance Israel attaches to the Conference of Presidents,” Lester Pollack, outgoing chairman of the Conference of Presidents, said in an interview on the bus ride to the Golan Heights.

“Precisely because of its diversity, any consensus the conference reaches is therefore a resounding voice,” he said.

Pollack dismissed any notion that the conference had been lagging behind in its support of the peace process.

“There is a consensus in support of the peace process in the American Jewish community. However, there are also disagreements, which reflect the debate in Israel,” he said.

Pollack believes that the debate is healthy, and that all Israeli views should be heard. Ultimately, the decisions are made by Israeli government, not by the American Jewish community, he said.

On the question of the Israelis who have gone to Capitol Hill to Congress against the positioning of U.S. troops on the Golan Heights as part of a possible peace agreement with Syria, Pollack said, “I am not sure it is appropriate, particularly when the issue is a political rather than a substantive debate.”

Pollack’s term as chairman, which began in 1993, is to end in June, when Leon Levy, president of the American Sephardi Federation, will replace him.

Pollack said of his time in office that he thoughts his role would be made easier after the signing of the Declaration of Principles between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in September 1993.

“In fact, it became much more difficult,” Pollack said. “Although the conference supports the peace process as a whole, it is divided on tactical and strategic issues. Uniformity always helped us get the administration to be more responsive to Israel.”

Shoshana Cardin, chairman of the United Israel Appeal and a past chairman of the Conference of Presidents, echoed some of Pollack’s comments.

“There has always been a diversity of opinions, but as far as the U.S. administration is concerned, we are all pro-peace. You have to realize that whenever the administration tries to get a notion of what the Jewish community thinks, it turns to the Conference of Presidents,” she said.

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