Avraham Burg Stepping Down – and Back into Israeli Political Fray

Avraham Burg stepping down — and back into Israeli political fray Avraham Burg announced this week that he is jumping from the Jewish Agency for Israel back into the Israeli political arena.

His return to politics cuts short his term as chairman of the Jewish Agency, a post he has held for four years.

Burg, a former Knesset member for the Labor Party, was recently elected to the party’s list of candidates for Israel’s May election.

Sallai Meridor, the agency’s treasurer, was elected acting chairman by the agency’s Board of Governors, which met in Jerusalem this week.

Meridor, the brother of Dan Meridor, a leader of the new center party, was slated to take over as chairman on Jan. 1,2000 anyway, but Israel’s call for early elections has advanced the timetable.

The scheduled rotation was a result of an agreement forged between the Likud and Labor parties.

In other agency business this week, the 121-member board approved the nomination of Alex Grass of Harrisburg, Pa., to replace Goodman, a Chicago businessman, its chairman.

Grass is the founder of Rite Aid Corporation, a major retail drugstore chain. He has served in numerous high-level roles, including chairman of the board of the United Jewish Appeal. He is the outgoing chairman of the board of Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Agency officials said they did not think the early transfer of power would affect the work of the agency, which has been undergoing some significant changes in recent years.

The Jewish Agency is the principal recipient of funds raised by Diaspora local federations and the United Jewish Appeal, which together raised an estimated $760 million in its 1998 annual campaign.

“I don’t think we’ll miss a beat,” the agency’s chairman of the board, Charles “Corky” Goodman, said of Burg’s departure.

“I’m not saying we won’t miss him,” Goodman said in a phone interview from Jerusalem. “He’s a great man, and I’m certain he will stay close” to the agency.

The exact timing of Burg’s departure is not yet known. He told the Board of Governors that he would step down when Labor Party leader Ehud Barak calls upon him to take an active role in the campaign.

Both Meridor and Grass are expected to be ratified in their positions in June at a meeting of the agency assembly.

Burg held a Knesset seat for the Labor Party when he was elected chairman in 1995 to replace Simcha Dinitz, then under indictment for misuse of agency funds.

The son of Yosef Burg, a National Religious Party member who served in each Israeli government for the state’s first 40 years, Avraham Burg never made a secret of his own political aims.

A preview of his current move came in 1996. He caused a stir when an Israeli newspaper article quoted him as saying he would resign from his agency post if his political ally, then-Premier Shimon Peres, were re-elected and offered him a Cabinet position.

Seasoned Jewish communal leaders were not surprised by his ongoing political aspirations.

“Knowing his background and political ambitions,” then-chair of the United Israel Appeal, Shoshana Cardin, said at the time that she had assumed Burg would return to government work should a position “come up that he found important enough. But I think he does find this job important.”

During Burg’s tenure, the agency began a series of severe budget cuts designed to overcome a deficit of over $100 million, in addition to debts that have largely been repaid.

Agency leaders attribute some of the ongoing deficit to a loss of income from Diaspora fund-raising efforts, with local communities keeping more funds at home for local services.

The cost-slashing measures included transferring social service and educational programs and other agency responsibilities to the Israeli government.

At the same time, the agency was forced to prove itself to Diaspora Jews, many of whom viewed the agency bureaucracy as bloated and redundant.

Eventually it cut its employees from 4,500 to about 900, and separated its politically appointed staff from its professional staff.

A merger of the united Jewish Appeal, the Council of Jewish Federations and the United Israel Appeal, which funnels money from the UJA to the Jewish Agency, will give the federations more power in determining how much of the annual campaign is allocated to Israel.

But the contract for the merger, which is expected to be ratified by some 200 federations at a meeting in June, stipulates that the allocations to the Jewish Agency will continue at current levels — about $200 million — for the next two years.

And Jewish Agency board members say they expect that the retailored agency will be more of an agent of the new entity, attuned to the desires of the federations.

“One of the purposes of this new organization, as opposed to three old ones,” said Goodman, is to instill confidence and a sense of responsibility and control in the federations, so that they will “find it in the best interest of the Jewish people to work closely together, fund programs together and do what we’ve always done”: work through the Jewish Agency to “help people in need.”

During the board meetings this week, delegates met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who suggested the creation of a tripartite committee to promote closer working ties among North American Jews, the Jewish Agency and the government of Israel.

Goodman said he does not foresee any other radical changes in the agency’s programs.

“We have our hands full,” he said, with a strategic plan in the works and the day-to-day business of “bringing 50 to 60 thousand people a year to Israel, which frankly consumes two-thirds of our budget” of $350 million.

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