The Israeli invasion

By Amiram Barkat


Shvat 1, 5767

Last week former Israeli ambassador to the United States Danny Ayalon was appointed co-chairman of Nefesh B'Nefesh, a Jewish-American organization for the encouragement of immigration to Israel. Israel's Ambassador to the European Union, Oded Eran, was supposed to have taken up a senior position at the World Jewish Congress this month. Last year a former director general of the Foreign Ministry, Reuven Merhav, became director of the executive committee Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany.

Retired Israeli diplomats are new faces in the Jewish organizations. It is interesting to examine what is behind the three cases. Are Israeli diplomats taking the place of the veteran Jewish leadership, or are these only functional appointments?

The most interesting case is that of Eran, who was supposed to have been appointed director of the Jerusalem office of the WJC and responsible for its foreign relations. Stephen Herbits, the aggressive and controversial secretary general of the WJC, still considered one of the most important Jewish organizations in the world, was behind Eran's appointment.

Herbits was appointed in 2004 by the WJC's president and real boss, Edgar Bronfman. The organization is still licking its wounds from the affair of the dismissal of whistle-blower Ifi Leibler and the harsh findings of the Spitzer report of last January. New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer ? he became governor of the state on January 1 ? revealed that the prestigious organization had been previously run in a scandalous way. Most of the criticism was directed at former secretary general Israel Singer, who was prohibited from serving in an operational position. An honorary position was tailored for him.

Since the WJC has been having difficulties finding a suitable cause to champion in recent years, Herbits is attempting to put the struggle against Iran's nuclear program at the top of the agenda. Eran is supposed to play a key role in the WJC's information campaign and in its relations with the government of Israel and other countries. Both within the WJC and outside it, Eran's appointment is seen as a clear signal that Singer's days are over. The man who with extraordinary natural talent managed the negotiations vis-a-vis the Swiss banks is now supposed to give way to a professional.

While the U.S. foreign service also has many talented diplomats, Herbits preferred someone close to the Israeli government. Eran accepted the offer, which includes an annual salary estimated at $250,000, with little hesitation. In the meantime, Eran's appointment has been frozen for at least three months, in the context of power struggles between Herbits and the WJC heads in Israel. The latter were insulted by Herbits' decision to "parachute" Eran onto them, without taking their opinion into consideration. In addition, they say the swift transition from the foreign service to the Jewish organization, with no cooling-off, period is unseemly.

In private conversations, Eran professes surprise and bewilderment over the storm accompanying his appointment. The veteran diplomat, who feels at home in the power centers of Europe, is looking like as a helpless rookie in face of the convolutions of Jewish politics.

Eran's two colleagues have also found themselves in the eye of the storm. It is interesting to note that, like Eran, both Ayalon and Merhav have discovered that their Israeli colleagues are now on the other side in these struggles. Merhav faces an Israeli coalition, headed by Minister Rafi Eitan, which is demanding 50 percent-control of the Claims Conference. In a special discussion at the Knesset this week, Merhav had to contend with harsh accusations of the Claims Conference from Holocaust survivors, journalists and politicians. Ayalon's situation is slightly better. The major rival of Nefesh B'Nefesh, the Jewish Agency, has not declared war on the organization yet but the tension between the two organizations is growing from year to year.

It would appear that more than anything else, the appointments of Eran, Ayalon and Merhav express the great increase in Israel's importance in Jewish politics. After a decade in which Holocaust property claims were the main focus, it now appears that Israel is the only subject that succeeds in arousing interest on the general Jewish arena.

The three organizations that have chosen Israeli diplomats have done so mainly in order to improve their standing in Israel, which has become a key arena of action for them. The Israelis were chosen for defined and limited ends. Leadership positions for them are not currently on the horizon. But it is possible that even though this was not the original intention, the entry of the Israelis will create a process that will eventually reach the top. Most of the large Jewish organizations have been run by the same people for more than 20 years. Their chief executives have not seen to nurturing their successors, to put it mildly. Israelis, and not only those in the foreign service, are about to discover that the Jewish world can offer them salaries several times higher than they can get in their homeland. Many Israelis will be delighted to fill the vacuum that will be created in the coming years in the leadership of the Jewish organizations. Some are also worthy candidates for these positions as a result of their rich experience in public service. The choice of Eran as Singer's successor is apparently just the harbinger of the new process.