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How Israel’s Dusty Zionist Bureaucracy Survives

(Haaretz) — The Knesset is full of young politicians, a generation unacquainted with the national Zionist institutions, which thinks they’re dusty and irrelevant old relics. Only the experienced operators — headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman — are aware of the treasure that lies in them: unsupervised budgets, jobs for cronies and a direct link to the golden goose that is the Jewish Diaspora.

Israel’s media long ago forgot these un-sexy bodies. There are no dedicated Diaspora reporters anymore, and last month’s investigation into the affairs of the Jewish National Fund on Channel 10 was a rarity. But the JNF is just the richest and strongest link in a chain of organizations set up in the days of pre-independence to create the state-to-be. Israel is now 66 years in the being, and there seems less justification than ever to keep alive the bureaucracy, which should have been disbanded at independence.

The secret of the survival of the World Zionist Organization, the JNF, the Jewish Agency and Keren Hayesod — United Israel Appeal is the people running them — politicians of the kind that other politicians, no matter of what party, can do business with. People who can quickly and quietly transfer funding, solve a problem for a mayor or deputy minister, connect a Jewish donor with a good cause and find a job for a loyal Knesset member who lost his seat.

The anonymous great leader from the WZO

On Monday night, when Israel’s great and good gathered at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem for the traditional ceremony marking the transition between Memorial and Independence Days, they looked beyond Theodor Herzl’s grave towards Helkat Gdolei Ha’umah, the plot of the nation’s greats. Only presidents, prime ministers and speakers of the Knesset are eligible for burial there, along with their partners. But the resting place of one functionary, virtually unknown to the Israeli public, is reserved on the mount — Avraham Duvdevani, the chairman of the World Zionist Organization.

Duvdevani, or “Duvdev,” as everyone calls him, is a veteran member of the old National Religious Party, now rebranded as Habayit Hayehudi, the son of a Knesset member and a devoted public servant in his own right who has spent his entire career in various posts in the Jewish Agency and JNF.

Duvdevani is the landlord of Mount Herzl, as the WZO is responsible for Herzl’s gravesite. And as WZO chairman, a title that was first held by Herzl and subsequently David Ben-Gurion and Haim Weitzman, Duvdevani, he is also eligible to be buried there.

Despite his anonymity, Duvdevani has achieved a rare feat that few are aware of. He breathed new life into an organization that the entire Jewish establishment had written off as a useless appendage.

Five years ago, following a prolonged struggle, the heads of the Jewish Federations of North America, which finance two-thirds of the Jewish Agency’s budget, succeeded in forcing the Agency to detach itself from the WZO, which had served as its board of directors with seats divided according to the relative strength of the Zionist parties in the Knesset. The Jewish Agency Chairman was also the head of the WZO, which symbolized to American members all that was corrupt and politicized; an obstacle to reform. Disconnecting the two organizations was their victory.

Duvdevani’s appointment was seen as a consolation prize to the shrunken NRP. The WZO, founded in 1897 at the First Zionist Congress, had no clear role besides managing the national cemetery. But Duvdevani wasn’t planning to be the undertaker. He succeeded in tripling the WZO annual budget, replacing the $7 million it used to receive from the Jewish Agency with $20 million from the JNF, which had a clear interest in bankrolling the WZO, the only body that officially supervises it and appoints its leaders.

With the money, Duvdevani embarked on a wide range of programs across the Jewish world. He funded Zionist education projects, aliyah campaigns, anti-Semitism monitoring initiatives and more. These may have been the roles of other organizations, such as the Jewish Agency, but the Diaspora is wide and the Agency has been in retreat for years due to cutbacks and reorganization. And anyway, Jewish Agency Chairman Nathan Sharansky, though once a renowned freedom fighter, is a failed politician. Duvdevani, on the other hand, always knew how to work with all parties, and they felt comfortable with him. The WZO became a useful source of funding for the parties’ international branches. Suddenly, Zionist youth movements grew, at least on paper. The WZO is also a convenient umbrella organization for the Settlement Department, the government’s long and hidden arm for building in the West Bank and a willing subcontractor for any other Zionist mission. The Settlement Department is the apple of the eye of Duvdevani’s national-religious party colleagues. With the backing of Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett, Housing Minister Uri Ariel and Knesset Finance Committee chairman Nissan Slomianski, it funnels tens of millions of shekels annually into building new neighborhoods and infrastructure in the settlements. A proper Zionist cause.

The unnecessary national fund

With the realization of the dream of generations in the foundation of an independent and sovereign Jewish state, all the roles of the JNF should have been transferred to the new government. After all, the JNF’s objective, building the national home, had been fulfilled.

But for the past 66 years, the JNF’s sole objective has been perpetuating itself. If the national institutions’ hacks admire Duvdevani for bringing the WZO back to life, then JNF Chairman Efi Stenzler is their superstar. Stenzler has leveraged the billions in the fund for a continuous public relations campaign, rebranding the musty old foundation as a “green,” environmentally friendly, movement. But the JNF’s new image is the most expensive false facade in Israel’s history. In reality, it is a massive real estate business, which also supplies the government with forestry services (at a fraction of its budget) to justify its existence to the credulous public.

“Keren Kayemet [the JNF] does a lot of important things,” says one former board member. “But the question is, shouldn’t these things be done by the government? The concern is that if JNF didn’t exist, the government wouldn’t do these things. But anyway, disbanding JNF isn’t on the government’s agenda. It’s a never-ending supply of liquid cash.” A former senior employee in the JNF’s forestry service says, “JNF’s forestry management is one of the most advanced in the world, but in any normal country, the government provides that service.” Many Israeli environmentalists also question the JNF’s green credentials as the organization develops conservation areas for building.

The only reason the JNF still exists is that no politician is in a hurry to dismantle an organization that holds nearly 15 percent of the country’s land and a 4 billion-shekel ($11.6 billion) slush fund that it uses without supervision or standards. The JNF doesn’t even have to market land itself, the Israel Land Authority does it for them, for a 25 percent management fee. One thing the JNF has gotten a lot better at in recent years is demanding from the ILA a better return on the sale of “its land.” But the very idea of “JNF land” is a fallacy, since the lands were purchased for the use of the Jewish people, or came into the state’s ownership, JNF was only ever supposed to be a custodian, not an owner.

The familiar terms “JNF forests” and “JNF parks” are also highly misleading. The 1.6 million dunams (395,000 acres) of forests in Israel are on state land, they are just managed by the JNF. “When land is sold, JNF maintains that it’s theirs, not the state’s,” says a former employee. “But when there’s a forest fire, they suddenly remember that it belongs to the state.” Most of the land “owned” by JNF is classic real state for development, around the cities of central Israel. Treasury officials routinely claim that the JNF holds the key to solving Israel’s housing crisis, and they’re not wrong. Properly managed, the dissolution of the JNF and the transfer of the land it currently holds to the state could open up the entire housing market.

JNF tries to pretend it’s a major fund-raising operation in the Jewish world. In reality, its network of fund-raisers around the world bring in only a tiny portion of its income. In the United States and Britain, entities presented as part of the JNF actually belong to Israel’s Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael — Jewish National Fund, which after long legal battles has been allowed to use the prestigious brand-name for fund-raising in local Jewish communities, while most of the donations go to independent projects in Israel.

The JNF board controls a massive cash fund filled by selling public land (“JNF land”) to the public. The fund allows them to distribute funding for lucrative projects — like parks, boulevards and buildings — to local councils headed by connected and influential politicians. The JNF gains twice from this funding. It purchases valuable political backing and protection and at the same time invests in PR. The Channel 10 investigation revealed how under Stenzler, JNF’s PR budget quadrupled.

But why does Stenzler, a former mayor of the Tel Aviv suburb Givatayim, need so much political goodwill and public recognition? He’s a survivor of an old system whereby his party, the historical Israeli Labor movement, controlled the national institutions. As Labor’s power shrunk, JNF remained the only stronghold. The parties in power, Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu and Bayit Yehudi, which already took over the rest of the apparatus, would like control of JNF as well. The only way Stenzler can hold on is by proving that the Laborite from Givatayim can come up with the goods.

Stenzler has been joined by another survivor — his co-chairman, Eli Aflalo of the now near-extinct Kadima party. Aflalo also needs political backing after crossing his former party leader Tzipi Livni and supporting Shaul Mofaz in the primaries. As justice minister, Livni has embarked on a campaign to force the JNF to accept the supervision and scrutiny of the state comptroller, and the JNF chiefs accuse her of doing so just to get back at Aflalo. They needn’t worry — Livni has scant chance of getting a majority in the government to approve her plan. Last Sunday, she lost a vote on the plan by the cabinet legislative committee. Most of the other ministers are fine with the JNF continuing unsupervised.

Stenzler and Aflalo’s days at the helm of the organization are probably numbered though. Their positions are coveted by coalition members. Still, the political establishment will forever be in Stenzler’s debt for the way in which he transformed the JNF from a gray and boring sinecure to an attractive green platform, creatively using its budget to accrue unprecedented political credit.

Wandering, aimless Jews

An old Jerusalem joke goes like this: A lion escaped from the Biblical Zoo and hid in the courtyard of the National Institutions building on King George Street. Every day, it ate a Jewish Agency official. Nobody noticed until it ate the lady who distributes tea. This joke is unfair to the Agency, which has recently undergone drastic cutbacks and layoffs. It’s hard today to call it wasteful. Some even say it’s grown too small, but there was no choice. Relying throughout its history on the largesse of Diaspora philanthropy worked as long as Israel had a failing economy. But with the rise of “startup nation” at the same time as the global financial crisis, it became much more difficult to continue convincing Jewish donors, even the most ardent Zionists, to bankroll the Agency.

The Agency tried everything. It agreed to strict governance rules in the hope that the American federations would come to its rescue. It hired Chairman Sharansky’s friend Misha Galperin for an obscene sum to head a new fund-raising operation in the hope he would act as a rainmaker. Keren Hayesod — UIA (another of the national institutions run by Netanyahu’s confidante ex-minister Modi Zandberg), which is in charge of fund-raising in other parts of the world, beefed up its efforts to attract new money from oligarchs. Nothing worked. Donations were down, and the funds that continued to come in were greatly eroded due to the weak U.S. dollar.

Donors were once willing to put their money in a general fund, believing the money would be put to good Zionist use. That willingness is disappearing, and much in the way Hadassah failed to continue funding its hospitals in Jerusalem, the Agency has been forced to come to terms with the fact that the new Jewish donor, like casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson, prefers to donate to young and sexy pet projects, like Taglit-Birthright, which offers free tours of Israel to young Jews and has become much more prominent than the Agency in recent years.

As it is, the Jewish Agency’s raison d’etre, encouraging and organizing Jewish immigration to Israel, has been weakening for years. Nearly all the Jews outside Israel live in relative prosperity in safe and stable societies. Their decision on whether to emigrate is be based on financial calculations, and if they need any additional information, they can go online or hop on a plane. They don’t need a Jewish Agency “shaliach,” or “emissary,” to explain things. The number of immigrants continues to dwindle along with the Agency’s traditional mission.

The Agency has tried to reinvent itself in recent years as an educational and “community-building” movement, fostering Jewish identity and “peoplehood,” but this field is crowded and not sexy to donors.

Agency representatives are still responsible for the initial screening of those eligible to receive Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. But there’s no reason that can’t be done by officials at the Interior or Immigration Ministries. As it is, the Immigration Ministry under Minister Sofa Landver of Yisrael Beitenu is already becoming much more proactive and trying to encourage more immigration from the former Soviet Union, which used to be the Agency’s role. At the same time, the nongovernmental organization Nefesh b’Nefesh has taken over the business of aliyah from North America and Britain, claiming to have made the process more user-friendly (though numbers have not increased noticeably as a result). Meanwhile, the Agency has given up its territory without a fight.

Ironically, this has happened under a prime minister who is very aware of the concerns of the Diaspora. Netanyahu is trying to launch a “strategic initiative” that will rejuvenate the relationship between Israel and the Jews of the world. He is even prepared to be the first Israeli leader to reverse the paradigm whereby Jews abroad pay for everything and has committed hundreds of millions of Israeli taxpayers’ shekels to Diaspora-focused programs. The new initiative could save the Jewish Agency if it succeeds in divining what Netanyahu wants to achieve and adapts accordingly. If it fails, it will have reached the end of its journey.

Lieberman’s private foreign service

Even if the JNF were monitored by the state comptroller, it probably wouldn’t make much difference. Take for example another powerful but less well-known organization at the Israel-Diaspora nexus.

Last September, State Comptroller Yosef Shapira published a special report on Nativ, or as it was once called Lishkat Ha’Kesher (The Contact Bureau). Despite the report’s severity, it was barely mentioned in the media, and like previous reports, it will change nothing. The comptroller slams every aspect of Nativ’s activity — budget management, hiring, unauthorized trips and projects — and a severe lack of oversight. But the most troubling conclusion comes right at the start, in Shapira’s personal introduction, where he writes of the government agency, “There is a lack of clarity, an opacity as to Nativ’s role, its status and responsibilities.”

Nativ is formally part of the Prime Minister’s Office and employs around 120 full-time staff, a third of them serving in the former countries of the Soviet Union. Its budget has been growing for years and currently stands at nearly 100 million shekels ($29 million). Even after spending two years investigating Nativ, the comptroller’s staff failed to understand why it exists.

The report tries to define Nativ’s unique status, a unit of the Prime Minister’s Office but under the auspices of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. It contains no explanation as to why Lieberman, who controls Israel’s official foreign service, wields a second international network. The answer, which doesn’t appear in the report, has been clear for years to anyone involved in Israel’s relations with the Jewish communities of the former Soviet empire. “For seven years, Nativ has had one aim: maintaining Lieberman’s political and personal ties in the Russian-speaking region and those of Yisrael Beitenu with its potential electorate,” says an official who was worked in Russia and its neighbors for many years.

Nativ was founded in 1952 to keep contact with the Jews living behind the Iron Curtain. For decades it was a secret service, part of Israel’s intelligence community. But like the JNF, WZO and Jewish Agency, whose historical roles ended with the establishment of the state, Nativ lost its raison d’etre in the early 1990s with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel, Russia and its former republics.

From the mid-1990s, Nativ’s budget was slashed and the threat of closure hung over it. It was saved by a coalition agreement signed in 2006 between Lieberman and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Lieberman, who was appointed strategic affairs minister, became responsible for a new beefed-up Nativ, with expanded though loosely-defined powers and greatly increased funding and manpower. Even when Lieberman was temporarily forced out of the cabinet by political and legal circumstances, he retained his hold on Nativ. When Netanyahu formed his second government and appointed Lieberman foreign minister, he found himself in control of the official diplomatic corps and a smaller, separate staff, working out of the embassies and consulates in countries with Russian-speaking Jewish communities. Nativ representatives use diplomatic cover, but they don’t answer to the local ambassadors and sometimes even act against Israel’s official diplomatic policy.

Nativ is no longer part of the intelligence community, but it has not shed its atmosphere of secrecy. It doesn’t publish its activities and operates out of an anonymous building in south Tel-Aviv. Nativ director Naomi Ben-Ami, a former diplomat and ambassador to Ukraine, served as Lieberman’s foreign-affairs adviser when he was national infrastructure minister. Since her appointment in 2007, complaints have accumulated that to be hired by Nativ one must first be approved by a senior member of Lieberman’s party. “Naomi is a pro who is trying to keep the organization relevant,” says a former Nativ employee. “But in reality, it [Nativ] is Lieberman’s plaything and continues to exist only due to his political influence and for his interests.” Nativ’s defenders say that it cannot justify its existence in public due to the sensitive nature of Israel’s relations with Russia, which are evident now in the crisis in Ukraine. They say that to maintain those relations and protect the local Jewish communities, Israel needs a team of experienced and discreet operators.

“That’s ridiculous,” says a veteran diplomat who has served in Eastern Europe. “What does Israel have diplomats for? If Nativ is so capable, why has more than one of its representatives been kicked out of Russia and other places in recent years? And why is Nativ trying to work in Germany and the U.S.? The only reason is it provides Lieberman with funding and people to safeguard his interests with his base.”

Nativ today has only two defined roles: To examine the eligibility of potential immigrants and to operate Israeli cultural centers. “It’s redundant since the Jewish Agency is the body that normally prepares immigrants, and there are cultural attaches at the embassies,” says an experienced aliyah activist. “As it is, emigration from the Former Soviet Union is dwindling, and there’s no reason it can’t be handled through the consulates in an orderly fashion.”

Despite everything, Nativ is under pressure to justify its existence and is occasionally forced out of the shadows. The comptroller found it overstepped its authority by organizing “hasbara,” or “Israeli PR,” and “branding” events abroad. In that, Nativ is no different than the “national institutions,” which have all been trying recently to get in on the hasbara act, the new global frontier of Zionism.

Everyone wants to be a hasbara hero

Two weeks ago, the National Information Directorate in the Prime Minister’s Office held an unofficial gathering of hasbara organizations. “Members of over 30 private organizations came,” said one of those present. “It was incredible, there wasn’t enough room for everyone.” Each of these groups has heavy-weight donors, offices in Israel and abroad, a strong presence on the Internet and social media and a steely determination to conquer the battlefield of ideas — for Israel and the Jewish people.

In the absence of mass aliyah, the hottest cause in the world of Jewish organizations is hasbara — fighting the two-headed monster of anti-Semitism and the delegitimization of Israel. ”There’s no security or diplomatic crisis,” says one Zionist activist with years of hasbara experience. “But you have to keep the Zionist engines running, so you manufacture a threat.”

“Everyone now wants to be a hasbara hero,” sighs an Israeli diplomat. “They need a crisis, so they have ‘delegitimization,’ as if that’s going to destroy Israel.”

Despite the often-heard complaints that “Israel doesn’t explain itself well,” the Jewish state has never had so many self-appointed ambassadors to the world, and the government’s allocations for PR are breaking records. Entire organizations, such as the World Jewish Congress, which used to focus on discreet diplomacy, have been refocused on hasbara for Israel and fighting anti-Semitism. The WZO has beefed up its anti-Semitism department and hired a PR firm to draw journalists’ attention to any and every odious utterance on the Internet.

As in any war, facts go out the window. Research showing that anti-Semitism in Europe and North America have actually gone down is disregarded, as is the expert view that the threat to Israel from delegitimization and the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement has been blown far out of any proportion. “Thirty years ago, Jewish officials were talking about the poisonous atmosphere on campuses in America, exactly as they are today,” says one Israeli who works with American-Jewish organizations. “But if you look at things from a historical perspective, nothing has changed. It’s just the Internet that’s magnifying the threat. Meanwhile, Israel’s diplomatic and commercial ties with the world have improved exponentially and there’s absolutely no sign of any reversal of that trend.”

The argument over the severity of the threat has combined with a turf war between the Foreign Ministry and other government departments trying to get in on the hasbara act. In the previous Netanyahu government, Yuli Edelstein’s Diaspora and Public Diplomacy Ministry tried to lead the charge and push campaigns on campuses. Funding that it transferred abroad was blocked by the consulates and Edelstein had to get Foreign Minister Lieberman to intervene. A hasbara activist complains, “The Foreign Ministry wants everything to stay with them, that’s why Israel’s image is so bad. They block initiative and resources because of the diplomats’ prestige.”

In the current government, the standard-bearer is Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz. His office has prepared an ambitious plan to fight delegitimization, which demands a budget of 100 million shekels. “All they want to do is fight the whole world,” says a dismissive diplomat. “We have to engage with people, but they are convinced we’re facing an existential threat.”

Netanyahu has yet to decide whether to award Steinitz the budget. While the squabbling within the government continues, the freelance organizations are representing Israel. They all claim to be non-political and “pro-Israel,” but the reality is they hew to a hard-right agenda, often creating absurd situations. Earlier this year, a group of British Jewish students backed by the Stand With Us movement expelled from the Israel Society at Oxford University Israeli students who were unhappy with their obsessive focus on fighting pro-Palestinian groups on campus.

“Only the right-wingers are on the frontline” says a British left-wing Zionist activist. “I wish groups like Peace Now and J Street were prepared to confront the anti-Israel far-left. Instead the right-wing has totally monopolized hasbara and it’s all become very violent and theatrical. The whole world now believes the far-right represents Israel.”

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