Back before he was facing indictment on rape charges, Israeli President Moshe Katsav hitched his star to the creation of a body of Jewish intellectuals and politicians that was to confront what he called the “crisis situation” facing the Jewish people.
The gathering — initially referred to as a World Jewish Parliament — was originally set to take place last week, during Sukkot, and to stand as a centerpiece of Katsav’s administration. As Katsav’s legal problems mounted, however, the plans for the meeting were put off and then fell from his radar.
On Sunday, in a move that many observers say will force Katsav from office, the Jerusalem police recommended that the president be indicted for rape and a number of other charges. Rather than marking the end of the initiative, though, the expected downfall of the president appears to be paving the way for the World Jewish Forum, as it is now known, to be taken over by a group of leaders outside the political realm who have a track record for executing ambitious worldwide initiatives. The planning will take on its most concrete form at a November 7 closed-door meeting chaired by Michael Steinhardt, the philanthropic driving force behind Birthright Israel, and Uzi Arad, former head of intelligence of the Mossad and organizer of the influential Herzliya conference, the most important gathering on security issues each year in Israel.
Arad said that the forum is still going ahead under the auspices of the Israeli president, but it will not rely on any specific holder of the office.
“The process is now continuing in spite of his present inability to be involved,” said Arad, who is overseeing the organization of the World Jewish Forum with his staff at the Interdisciplinary Center, a university in Herzliya.
Of Katsav, Arad said, “Although he deserves a great deal of credit, it is not dependent on him.”
About 35 handpicked invitees will attend the upcoming meeting, sponsored by Steinhardt’s Jewish Life Network. They will chew on concrete proposals that will then be presented to the World Jewish Forum.
Arad said that the broader forum should go ahead at some point in mid-2007. He also said that members of his staff have already put together a list of 1,000 potential invitees, which will be winnowed down in the next few weeks to a final invite list of 250-300 of “the leading scholars and scientists of the Jewish people — as well as the leaders of the organizational world,” he said. In response to past criticisms, there is also an effort to include more women and young people in the gathering.
According to Arad, the main uncertainty caused by the president’s predicament relates to the date of the wider forum. Initially the plan was for it to be held last week. Next it was pushed back to Hanukkah, then to Passover 2007. Now it appears as if it will take place sometime after that, next year.
Katsav’s initial goal was to create an elected global Jewish parliament, an idea that was shelved because of the difficulty of holding elections — particularly given the already declining participation in the elections for the World Zionist Organization, the only democratically elected global Jewish body. At a planning meeting last February, headed by Katsav, the new initiative was talked about as a Davos for the Jewish people, referring to the popular Swiss conference that draws together world leaders for wide-ranging discussions on a host of issues.
Arad said that he took over planning in April, and the president’s legal problems have prevented him from speaking with Katsav about the forum since July.
Since becoming president in 2000, after a career in the Likud party, Katsav developed a reputation as a soft-spoken moderate.
The accusations of sexual improprieties were made public in July after the president went to the Israeli attorney general with complaints that one of his former employees was trying to blackmail him with threats of sexual harassment charges. After an extended investigation, Jerusalem police recommended Sunday that prosecutors indict Katsav on a number of charges, including rape, sexual harassment and wiretapping. The Jerusalem district prosecutor is reported to be drawing up an indictment that then would be handed on to the attorney general.
Katsav’s advisers told reporters that the president does not plan to resign until he is formally charged with a crime. On Monday, however, Katsav skipped the ceremonial opening session of Knesset after a number of members said they would walk out if he attended. Already there is speculation about who will replace Katsav. Yisrael Meir Lau, former chief rabbi of Israel and current chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, has been a leading contender, though he would be controversial in America given his past derogatory statements about non-Orthodox religious streams. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told reporters Tuesday that he would not rule out backing someone from outside the political realm, such as Lau.
Other candidates include Shimon Peres, the current vice premier who lost to Katsav in the 2000 election for president. On Tuesday, Collette Avital, a Labor parliamentarian and the former Israeli consul general in New York, put herself up for the position.
People close to the planning for the World Jewish Forum say the choice of the new president could determine whether the forum goes forward successfully. A few people said that Lau, the front-runner, has not shown previous interest in issues facing Diaspora Jewry and that his selection could spell trouble for the initiative.
The person who oversaw the forum for Katsav, Akiva Tor, said that if the initiative is to be successful it would require the full support of the new president or, failing that, the prime minister.
“To make a dent in the issues we were talking about — big global issues — that is something that is hard to do with anything less than a presidential invitation,” said Tor, who was Katsav’s adviser for Diaspora affairs. The position has remained empty since Tor left two months ago.
Initiatives to solicit the opinions of Jews from outside the narrow confines of the Jewish organizational world have been rife over the past year as leaders have looked for fresh ways to deal with a number of problems facing the Jewish world, including what some researchers say is a decline in the global Jewish population.
Katsav’s World Jewish Forum was one of the most ambitious of such initiatives and followed previous meetings called by Israeli presidents. Most of those have devolved into spitting contests with few results.
From the beginning, Katsav’s forum has been oriented toward reaching specific goals. Some of the people who are set to participate in the upcoming planning meeting said that the presence of Arad and Steinhardt could allow the forum to overcome the shortcomings of similar meetings in the past.
“Nobody wants to waste their time at yet another conference,” said Jewish activist Yosef Abramowitz, who has been a steady critic of mainstream Jewish initiatives. “Those who know Uzi Arad know that when he decides to do something, it’s going to get done.”
The forum will be focusing on three separate subject areas: education, peoplehood and demographics. So far the most concrete planning has occurred in the area of education. The former director general of the Israeli finance ministry, Ben-Zion Zilberfarb, has been putting together a grand economic plan that would aim to make Jewish education free for all young Jews around the world. Abramowitz worked with Zilberfarb on this plan and says that in his own work, he has secured $100 million in commitments from commercial financial institutions to fund the plan if it should go forward.
At the meetings in February, Tor said, “the picture that kept coming up was that the thing that will most stem the decline in the Jewish people is formal education of any type, from Chabad to Reconstructionist.”
Now, Arad said, the goal is to find concrete ways to make that happen.
“People like Steinhardt who are trying hard on this are doing so because they expect results,” Arad said.