Jewish Agency Chairman Eyes Political Arena Under Peres

Jewish Agency Chairman Avraham Burg is reconsidering his political prospects now that Shimon Peres is at the helm of the Israeli government, say sources close to Burg.

The charismatic Burg, who took over the chairmanship earlier this year after a hotly contested Labor Party race, is said to be eyeing a minister’s post.

Peres announced his new Cabinet Tuesday. But insiders who declined to be named say it is still possible Burg could assume a ministerial portfolio in the coming months.

However, they say it is more likely he would be tapped for a Cabinet post in the next government if Peres wins the election next November.

Burg could not be reached for comment.

Sources close to him said he had “gone into the mountains with his wife to think” about his future after last week’s General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations in Boston.

To comply with Jewish Agency bylaws and become chairman, Burg had to resign from the Knesset, where he was head of the education committee after being one of the top cote-getters in the Labor Party primaries prior to the 1992 election.

When he was being interviewed for the agency chairmanship by Diaspora fund- raisers, Burg never hid his aspirations to return to the political arena, said sources involved with the process.

It was always clear to most that Burg was using his reform of the agency as a vehicle to raise his political profile in the same way his political cohorts, Haim Ramon and Yossi Beilin, both ministers in the new Cabinet, raised theirs by seeking to shake up old institutions.

The agency is the principal Israeli recipient of funds raised by local Diaspora federations and the United Jewish Appeal.

The chairman is nominated by the Israeli political party in power and elected by the World Zionist Organization, while Diaspora fund-raisers have veto power over the choice.

One source close to Burg said he might want to be a minister of Jewish affairs and still retain the Jewish Agency chairmanship, but that is almost certain not to be acceptable to the agency’s Diaspora partners. Others say Burg would be more interested in the education or religious affairs portfolios.

With Yitzhak Rabin as prime minister, Burg’s prospects for a Cabinet post were slim. As it was, Rabin strongly favored Burg’s rival for the chairmanship of the agency, Yehiel Leket, a longtime Jewish Agency-WZO official.

But with Peres as the prime minister, the landscape appears far more fertile for Burg’s advancement.

Burg could be given a Cabinet post without being a member of Knesset. If he decides to run for Knesset elections, he would have to enter his name in the Labor Party primaries by the spring.

Sources said it was unlikely that Burg would walk away from the chairmanship before he completes at least a year of tenure.

At the same time, however, Burg evidently was stung by his treatment at the G.A., where 4,000 lay and professional Jewish communal leaders were gathered.

Burg was exhilarated by the crowds he drew at the various forums at which he spoke, trumpeting that as evidence of a renewed interest in the Israeli- Diaspora partnership.

But at the main and final plenary Nov. 16, Burg did not participate.

According to the original program, Burg was slated to be the final speaker, but on the agenda distributed that evening his name did not appear.

After a speech by Peres delivered by satellite, UJA President Joel Tauber said Burg had been scheduled to speak but because of the lateness of the hour had “graciously” declined to take up any more of the delegates’ time.

Further complicating matters, Tauber attempted to praise Burg, who was sitting on the dais, but referred to him as the man “we hired.”

The reference stunned those familiar with the delicate power-sharing arrangement between the Israelis of the Jewish Agency and the Diaspora fund- raisers. Several said they could not figure out whether it was a slip of the tongue or a deliberate slight.

The incident has since been reported in the Israeli media.

Tauber could not be reached, but Martin Kraar, executive vice president of the CJF, said the whole affair was a regrettable error.

“We are terribly distressed that circumstances at the plenary were seen by some as a slight to Avraham Burg, our friend and colleagues and a person for whom we have great respect and hope for the future,” he said.

Kraar said Burg fell victim to pressures dictated by the schedules of Peres and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who also spoke at the plenary.

Burg’s name was omitted from the evening’s program as a result of “a clerical error when it was typed one hour before the plenary,” said Kraar.

“In retrospect, we certainly recognize how this series of changes might have been perceived in a negative way, but I want to assure everyone it was completely an error at a very stressful time and certainly not an intended affront,” said Kraar.

NEXT STORY