Riddled with Domestic Troubles, Israel Hosts Presidents Conference

The mood in Israel was grim as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations held its annual gathering.

Participants met last week with top officials who boasted of a robust nation, but Israelis on the street wondered how so many things could seemingly go wrong at once — government scandals, the bitter aftermath of last summer’s war in Lebanon, mayhem in Gaza and the threat of a potentially nuclear Iran.

“Are we happy to see the corruption? Absolutely not. Are we going to see pure ethics? Never,” Mel Parness of Bnai Zion Foundation said. “But that does not mean the Israeli system should not be changed to get a higher caliber of person to get involved in politics.”

Israelis have been grappling in recent weeks with a possible indictment of their president on rape and harassment charges, a justice minister found guilty of kissing a soldier against her will and a series of corruption scandals that reach the prime minister’s bureau.

Meanwhile, the army’s chief of staff resigned after learning a large portion of blame in Israel’s failure to decisively win the war against Hezbollah last summer would be placed on his shoulders. Headlines followed the scandals and shakeups as well as the work of the investigating committee into the war as it met with its final witnesses.

Bernice Balter, executive director of the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, suggested Israel could correct at least some of its woes by having a representational form of government.

“It’s built wrong to get the right results,” she said of the Israeli system in which lawmakers are elected by their parties, not a constituency. “There is no accountability for the population that voted for you.”

Leaders of Jewish organizations attending the gathering said their work back in the United States had not been affected by the issues currently gripping Israelis.

In part it is because American Jews are largely disconnected from the domestic qualms of the Israeli public, said Lesley Israel of the NCSJ, which advocates on behalf of Jews in the former Soviet Union.

“I don’t think most American Jews know for most Jews it is still about the Promised Land of Milk and Honey,” she said.

It’s worrisome that the participants were not asking harder questions of the leaders with whom they were meeting, past Presidents Conference Chairman Seymour Reich said.

“No one is focusing on the demoralization in Israel or the disfiguration of the system,” he said. “It’s troubling.”

The coordinating body representing 52 national Jewish organizations met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, among others.

They all spoke of the threat posed by Iran and the importance of preventing the country from achieving nuclear power.

Citing issues such as Iran, Presidents Conference Executive Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein said domestic Israeli politics should not necessarily distract the participants from the war on terror, threats to Israel from Hezbollah and Hamas, and what he called a growing movement to delegitimize Israel’s right to exist.

Hoenlein cited concern regarding increasing references in the United States to a Jewish lobby and undue influence in what he said is an attempt to intimidate Jews and in turn decrease support for Israel.

The strong support Israel has in the United States, which is one of the goals of the organization, should not be taken for granted, he said.

The conference also met with the families of the three Israeli soldiers captured last year — Gilad Shalit, who was taken by Palestinian gunmen in a cross-border raid in June, and Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, who were captured by Hezbollah in July.

Conference organizers pledged to keep the soldiers’ plight on the top of agenda both in the United States and internationally.

“We cannot let the governments of the world forget this issue,” Hoenlein said.

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