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Jewish Agency Chairman Makes Waves with Interview

Avraham Burg, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, is scrambling to undo damage caused by a published interview in which he said he is poised to leave his post and join the Cabinet if Prime Minister Shimon Peres is re-elected in the fall.

Since the interview appeared Dec. 27 in the daily Ha’aretz, Burg has been dogged in the Israeli media by accusations of opportunism and bad faith in taking the Jewish Agency job as a stepping stone.

He assumed the post in June after a hard-fought contest.

His published remarks were said to have demoralized Agency employees already under strain from a budget crisis that has forced wholesale program cuts.

In a telephone interview Thursday from Israel, Burg said he had earlier in the day reaffirmed his commitment to the Agency in front of 200 senior employees at seminar in the Negev Desert.

But Burg’s language leaves little doubt that he is keeping his options open.

“I don’t have any plan to leave the Agency for now. On the contrary,” he said in the telephone interview, “I don’t see any other alternative attractive enough to take me off the five years I promised” to give to “the Israel- Diaspora relationship.”

This “is the single most important mission in my life today,” he said. “I’m not going to give it up for political temptation.”

The Agency is the principal Israeli recipient of funds raised by Diaspora local federations and the United Jewish Appeal and is a symbol of the Israeli- Diaspora partnership.

In the Ha’aretz article, a photograph of Burg is captioned: “The natural candidate.”

Burg is quoted in the piece as saying that he expects to be offered a major Cabinet post and that there is a “big chance” that he would resign from the Agency in that event.

“I will be the first candidate from outside the government to be called in as a minister,” he is quoted as saying.

Diaspora leaders of the Agency were clearly dismayed by the Ha’aretz interview, but several said they were not surprised. They sought to downplay the incident and insist that nothing has changed.

“I was not shocked at the substance” of the remarks, “only the way they were delivered,” said Shoshana Cardin, chair of the United Israel Appeal, which funnels UJA money to the Agency.

“Knowing his background and political ambitions, which he never attempted to conceal, I would assume” that he would leave if an opportunity in the government “come up that he found important enough. But I think he does find this job important.”

At the same time, Cardin said she welcomed Burg’s rededication before Agency employees.

“It is helpful because staff become demoralized if they think they’re dealing with someone who is about to leave,” she said.

Still, she said of the entire incident, “I’m sorry it happened, it was an unnecessary glitch.”

Burg, who resigned from his Labor seat in the Knesset to take the job, made plain his long-term political aspirations when he was first interviewed to head the Agency.

Burg has expressed interest in becoming prime minister of Israel someday.

Indeed, his political stature was seen as an asset by those who supported his candidacy and who argued it would help upgrade the image of the Agency, which had been tarnished by scandals at the top and has been held in low esteem in Israel.

The last chairman, Simcha Dinitz, stepped down from his position after being indicted on charges of fraud and abuse of the public trust. A court decision in his trial is pending.

At the time, the job appeared ideal for Burg.

A stormy relationship with Yitzhak Rabin sharply limited his options in the government and made the Agency chairmanship the most attractive quasi-political job he could get, observers agree.

But the prime minister’s assassination in November abruptly changed Burg’s political fortunes. With his mentor Shimon Peres at the helm of the new government, it was inevitable that Burg would seek to re-enter the political fray.

Burg refused to talk about the circumstances of the Ha’aretz interview, saying only, “I take it was a fact of public life.”

But Rabbi Brian Lurie, executive vice president of the United Jewish Appeal and a friend of Burg’s, said, “He made a mistake and he recognized it.”

Having his remarks published was “the last thing he intended,” Lurie said. “He thought it was an informal conversation.”

The Israeli media’s response to the Burg interview was harsh.

“Burg launched a major campaign to be appointed chairman of the Jewish Agency,” wrote Nachum Barnea in the mass-circulation Israeli daily Yediot Achronot.

“He barely warmed up that seat and he already wants to desert,” Barnea wrote, adding, “The lightness with which he hops from job to job does not add weight to his career.”

Another Yediot columnist, B. Michael accused Burg of “a shocking lack of shame” for being ready to resign on the spot from a job “he swore on the Torah” was more important than any other.

In fact, the columnist continued, if he is offered a minister’s post, “he will deliver the Jewish people a kick in the rear end and will rush to his new office.”

Lurie refuted such charges, saying that no one could have foreseen the political changes wrought by Rabin’s death and the imperative they bring to Burg.

“There was an assumption that Rabin would continue as prime minister until the year 2000 and the less-than-friendly nature of his relationship with Burg was well-documented,” said Lurie.

Burg “correctly analyzed he would have to take an independent path” to fulfill his political aspirations and that path brought him to the Jewish Agency, Lurie said.

When Peres, “his mentor and political guide,” became prime minister of Israel, it was only natural that Burg would re-evaluate his prospects, Lurie said.

Richard Pearlstone, national chairman of the UJA, echoed Lurie’s analysis and defended Burg’s stewardship of the Agency.

“We thought he was absolutely the best person for the job,” Pearlstone said.

At the same time, “we understood he was a politician” and if his chances for political advancement improved he would move on.

“We thought we’d get five years,” said Pearlstone, but “things have changed.”

In the meantime, however, Pearlstone said Burg “believes in the Israel-Diaspora partnership” and “wants to do what’s right by the Jewish people. While he’s with us he gives us 100 percent of his effort.”

“He’s trying to help us restructure and has brought some discipline to our players,” Pearlstone said, adding that “he has vision and that is more important than anything.”

“The Agency is going through enormous transition which is long overdue and he’s leading it,” said Lurie. “As long as he’s there he’ll give them leadership.”

Burg said he did not think that the Agency was damaged by either the interview or the media reaction to it.

“It’s been a long time since the chairman of the Jewish Agency has been so debated,” he said.

“When the chairman is relevant to public life, the Jewish Agency becomes relevant to public life.”

One insider who asked not to be named was philosophical about the whole incident.

“Burg plays the press,” he said. “This won’t be the last time he puts his foot in his mouth.”

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