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With the Presidents Conference in Israel: 4 Days of Pressure Cooker Information

February 22, 1984
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Last week’s mission to Israel by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was four days of pressure cooker information gathering. The some 70 men and women participating were busy from early morning to late in the evening listening to and questioning Cabinet Ministers and other government officials on all aspects of Israeli life.

The meetings were held mostly in the Jerusalem Hilton which is not too close to the attractions of the Old City or the downtown shopping area. The group was taken to Tel Aviv one afternoon, but that was for briefings at the Ministry of Defense preceded by a luncheon with Israel’s editors with the participants questioning the journalists in a reverse press conference.

The group got around a little more on the last day, going to the President’s house to meet President Chaim Herzog and to City Hall to see Mayor Teddy Kollek, but they were briefed at both places too.

In between, the Jewish National Fund took them to see two of its forests that are being built to make up a “greenbelt” around Jerusalem. The mission ended with a dinner at the Knesset addressed by Premier Yitzhak Shamir from where those who were returning to the United States were whisked to Ben Gurion Airport.


Moshe Gilboa, director of the Foreign Ministry’s World Jewish Affairs Division, who served as host along with Harry Hurwitz, an advisor to the Premier, said the four-day event was seen by the Israeli government as a way to “institutionalize” the dialogue with the Presidents Conference. All of the participants had been to Israel many times before, either individually or with their organizations, but never before as a Presidents Conference delegation.

“This was the first time that we had a profound elaborate, heart-to-heart dialogue,” Gilboa told the three American Jewish journalists who accompanied the mission. The three were Jerome Lippman, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Jewish World of Long Island, N.Y., David Gross, editor of The Jewish Week of New York, and this reporter. Gilboa stressed that the Jewish leaders not only heard Cabinet Ministers but also the experts and technicians who help devise policy.

Julius Berman, chairman of the Presidents Conference, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, that while in the U.S. visiting Israelis brief the Conference on political issues, in Israel they were getting a better understanding of all aspects of Israeli life, economic and social, as well as political and military affairs.

Berman also stressed that the meetings helped create a better understanding for future discussions between the Israeli government and the Presidents Conference. “They learned what is on our minds and we learned what is on their minds,” he said.

In addition, the Americans were able to demonstrate that on issues Israel face they share a feeling of “identification” with the Israelis, Berman said. “We are one people,” he stressed. “When they hurt we cry, when things go well, we express happiness.”

The mission took place against the background of a week during which the government of President Amin Gemayel and U.S. policy in Lebanon seemed on the verge of collapsing. The Israeli officials from Shamir and Defense Minister Moshe Arens on down made it clear that Israel opposes the abrogation by Lebanon of the May 17 agreement with Lebanon. Most Israelis want to leave Lebanon but it was made clear the army would not be withdrawn until Israel is sure that its northern border will be secure.

A full day was devoted to the economic situation, and while the Israelis stressed that there would have to be budget cuts and a decrease in the standard of living, they seemed optimistic that Israel’s 200 percent inflation could be reduced.

The chief basis for this was hope that the large balance of payments deficit could be cut by a billion dollars this year. But the hope for the future is a belief that Israel will move into the high tech export market in a major way and that many foreign companies will build plants there.


Another theme that was stressed was aliya. The need for American Jews to immigrate to Israel was urged not only by Leon Dulzin, chairman of the World Zionist Organization and Jewish Agency Executives, but by many of the government officials. It was put strongest by Col. Ron Ben-Ishai, head of the Israel Army Radio, who said during the meeting with the editors that if American Jews wanted to have influence on Israel they had to make aliya.

Perhaps the unexpected dividend of the four-days was the closeness that developed among the participants. They represented all of the movements in Jewish life from Reform to Orthodox, from Labor Zionism to Herut, as well as the various communal groups, yet they all seemed to get along.

Berman summed it up at the Knesset when he noted that they had all met together as part of the Presidents Conference in New York or Washington, “but we had to come to Israel to really get to know each other.”

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