World Body Riven By Power Struggle

By Elli Wohlgelernter

Published November 14, 2003, issue of November 14, 2003.
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JERUSALEM — Bobby Brown, a former adviser to former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is slated to be named director of international affairs of the World Jewish Congress as well as its Jerusalem director, the Forward has learned.

The appointment is the congress’s third major personnel move in the past month and comes amid a major shake-up inside the organization. The moves are part of the fallout from a public and ugly squabble between the WJC’s president, Edgar Bronfman, and its senior vice president, Isi Leibler. That long-running spat flared in August, when Bronfman co-signed a letter with former secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger to President Bush, urging him to exert pressure on Israel to follow the road map peace plan.

Last week the WJC’s secretary-general, Avi Beker, resigned from his post after 22 years with the Congress, saying in a letter that in “the current process of restructuring and transition it would be difficult for me to carry out my responsibilities as secretary general.”

Beker was referring to a three-man task force that has been assigned the mission of reconstituting and restructuring the organization. The group is headed by Yoram Dinstein, former president of Tel Aviv University, Leibler, and Elan Steinberg, the group’s former executive director who was brought back a month ago as senior adviser. WJC chairman Rabbi Israel Singer will serve as permanent observer to the task force.

One source told the Forward that Beker resigned because the task force was formed “without consulting him, and he felt that it would be difficult for him to exercise his powers as secretary-general. In this transition process, he felt it was not clear who would be in charge” of the WJC.

Other sources said that one of the issues contributing to Beker’s resignation was a personality clash with Steinberg, who had left his executive director’s position two years ago when Beker was appointed secretary-general.

The situation among the WJC’s top leadership is dire. After Bronfman wrote his letter to Bush, Leibler wrote an open letter to Bronfman in his Jerusalem Post column, calling Bronfman’s original letter “obscene” and “an act of perfidy which will not be swept under the carpet.” Leibler insisted that Bronfman “retract and apologize forthwith. Otherwise, I call on you to resign.”

Bronfman responded to Leibler’s criticism with a vituperative attack of his own, calling Leibler in various publications “damaged,” “a right-wing dog,” “an arrogant twit who has decided that God is dead and he is taking His place” and “just one idiot. He can go f-ck himself.”

Leibler, an Australian-born businessman who lives in Israel, is a political conservative whose sharply worded columns appear regularly in the Jerusalem Post and elsewhere. In September he wrote a column calling for the United Nations to be dissolved.

Bronfman further inflamed criticism when he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that “if the Palestinian suicide bombers only went to the settlements and told the whole world they were wrong, then the whole world would have had a case against Israel and there would be a two-state solution by now. Instead, they sent them into Israel proper, which is ghastly.”

A cease-fire was declared with the establishment of the task force, whose purpose is not only to reorganize the Congress, but also to put in place a procedure for the succession of Bronfman, who has said he will step down in 2005 after 24 years at the helm.

Much speculation is focused on who will succeed Bronfman. Leibler said he has no ambitions whatsoever in that direction “because I think primarily the World Jewish Congress should have as a leader a Diaspora-based Jew, so that it is not perceived simply as an extension of Israel.”

High-level sources told the Forward that names being whispered include Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, a member of the Rothschild family and philanthropist Michael Steinhardt.

“What has been achieved is a major consensus by all parties that there should be a major restructuring of the World Jewish Congress,” Leibler said this week. “One of the last jobs that Bronfman wants to do is to insure that his successors are left with an organization which is going to practice governance, which will be transparent, and which above all will be accountable to its constituents. And it will enable us to insure that the public confrontations which took place are a thing of the past.”

The squabble, if not the direct cause, was certainly the catalyst for forming the task force, according to Steinberg, “because it raised precisely the kinds of issues that have to be addressed: When can the president speak in his private capacity, and when is he speaking on behalf of the organization? Can you draw that distinction? Similarly, when does the senior vice president — who writes a column for The Jerusalem Post, and who has a political view different from Mr. Bronfman — when can he speak on behalf of the organization, and is it appropriate?”

Steinberg said that rumors that the WJC is tilting to the right are simply untrue.

“I will flatly deny that,” he said. “The World Jewish Congress is not shifting to the right or to the left, and I’m not sure how you can say that is the case. There is no question that Mr. Leibler is right of center and Mr. Bronfman is left of center, but the universality of the World Jewish Congress is its great strength. And nobody will be muzzled. As far as I’m concerned the Congress as a body will neither be moved to the right nor to the left; that would defeat the whole purpose of this exercise.”

Dinstein said he agreed to serve as head of the task force on the condition that Bronfman would not step down before the work of the group is finished. “The last thing that I need is a chaotic period when nobody knows what’s happening,” Dinstein said. “I need him around in order to convene what I call — a tentative name — a constitutional assembly that will adopt our recommendations, and then we will start looking to the future. He promised me that he will do that.”

Another condition was that any appointments made while the task force was in operations be done so on an interim basis. Thus the appointment of Brown – which was disclosed last Friday in an internal letter from the New York headquarters to its worldwide affiliate offices — noted that the WJC is “temporarily appointing” Brown as director of international affairs, and that he would become “acting director” of the Jerusalem office.

Brown, who served as Diaspora affairs advisor to Netanyahu, was put forth as the consensus candidate by the principal players, including Bronfman, Singer, Leibler and Steinberg. Final details are being worked out, but he is considered ideal to head the Jerusalem office because of his extensive knowledge of Diaspora Jewry, the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government.

An advisor to Jewish Agency Chairman Sallai Meridor on issues of Jewish property restitution, and director of the agency’s company’s bureau, Brown said he will ask for a leave of absence from the agency.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen at the World Jewish Congress, but if there is a need today, I’ll work today,” Brown said. “If there is no need tomorrow, I’ll go home to the place I went home before, to the Jewish Agency. Whether it will be a longer term position is not one that really concerns me at this moment.”

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