Jewish officials profess shock over report on Zionist body

Nathaniel Popper for The Forward, 3/18/2005

Embarrassed leaders of American Jewish organizations were absorbing the news this week that an international body under their control was at the center of a tangled Israeli scheme, detailed in a bombshell government report, to build illegal settlement outposts in violation of Israeli law, policy and international commitments.

The international body, the World Zionist Organization, or WZO, is described in the report as a pivotal player in the scheme, in which midlevel officials in various government ministries secretly channeled funds and resources to the illegal West Bank outposts. Several sources told the Forward that a WZO department, the Settlement Division, was used as a vehicle for many of the illegal activities, in part because its status as a nongovernmental organization shielded it from government oversight.

The controversial report, commissioned last year by Prime Minister Sharon, was submitted March 9. The Cabinet approved it March 13. The author, Talia Sasson, formerly Israel's chief criminal prosecutor, paints a scathing picture of government and WZO officials who diverted funds, confiscated land including privately owned Palestinian land or turned a blind eye to "blatantly illegal" activity. Sasson said the illegal outposts began in the mid-1990s in response to a freeze on legal settlement construction by late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

The report has caused a furor in Israel. The Sharon government, which is obligated to freeze settlement building under President Bush's road map to peace, promised to remove the outposts built since 2001 but largely failed to do so. Doves said the report proved the government was effectively abetting the illegal activity, while hawks said the role of government agencies proved the activity was not illegal.

WZO is a confederation of pro-Israel groups in dozens of countries, including such mainstays as Hadassah, B'nai B'rith and offshoots of the Reform and Conservative movements. American groups control 30% of the organization's main governing bodies, including the World Zionist Congress, which is convened in Jerusalem every four years.

Most leaders of American Zionist groups said they had been unaware of the extent of WZO's work in the territories. "If it were in the documents, there would have been big fights," said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, former director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America. "We wouldn't have let that slide."

Others said American and world Jewish leaders simply failed to respond to mounting evidence. "This was hardly discussed, and everyone could have done a lot more," said Moshe Kagan of the left-wing Meretz USA, a former member of WZO's 24-person executive committee. "Not enough was done, not by Meretz and not by anyone else."

Theodor Herzl founded the World Zionist Organization in 1897 to spearhead the creation of a Jewish state. Its Israeli operating arm, the Jewish Agency, essentially provided Israel's governmental infrastructure when the state was declared in 1948. After independence, the world organization pursued tasks such as immigration, Jewish education and Israeli rural development.

Following the 1967 Six-Day War, WZO and the Jewish Agency were "reconstituted" as separate entities, with WZO retaining its ideological mission to Diaspora Jews as well as its tradition of raucous political debate. The Jewish Agency took over Israeli social services, currently a $420 million network of programs funded by Diaspora philanthropies.

The two bodies remain closely linked, sharing top staff and some joint facilities. The agency largely funds WZO's $11 million budget.

Crucially, the post-1967 restructuring also split up the organization's rural development operations. The Jewish Agency oversaw projects in Israel, while WZO took charge of settlement in the territories seized in the 1967 war.

Officials say they are careful not to use American donations to fund WZO activities in the territories, in order to avoid violations of U.S. policy that could compromise the tax-exempt status of U.S. Jewish charities.

Over time, the WZO Settlement Division became a semi-independent unit financed with Israeli government funds, currently $40 million a year. WZO governing bodies do not review the division budget, which is under the purview of the state comptroller, officials said.

The lines between WZO and the Jewish Agency are not always clear, however. While Settlement Division activities are funded by the government, the infrastructure of WZO, including the Settlement Division, is funded largely by the Jewish Agency, which in turn is funded by American Jewish federations.

The Settlement Division's work in the territories was originally a topic of WZO debate. At the 1982 World Zionist Congress, a resolution to end the WZO's role in settlements was narrowly defeated in a procedural maneuver by WZO's Likud-appointed chairman. Soon afterward, Ariel Sharon, who had been forced to resign as defense minister after the 1982 Lebanon War, was nominated to head the division, but was rejected because liberal delegates feared he would override oversight rules.

In the mid-1980s, however, feuding over religious pluralism eclipsed debate over settlements. Delegate elections to the World Zionist Congress in 1987 saw the entry for the first time of a slate representing Reform Judaism, which swept the American balloting that year.

According to Rabbi Eric Yoffie, founding director of the Reform Zionist group and now president of the Union for Reform Judaism, debate over settlements dissipated during the 1980s, in part because it became clear that the Israeli government was calling the shots. "At a certain point, people saw this was not going to be resolved in the WZO, so there was just no purpose to further debates," Yoffie said.

In recent years, evidence has mounted implicating the Settlement Division in dubious activities. Numerous reports by the Israeli Peace Now organization detailed the web of agencies building outposts. In January, a Knesset committee discussed WZO's role in illegal outposts.

"If people didn't suspect this on some basic level, there was something wrong with them," said Jamie Levin, director of the Labor Zionist Alliance, now known as Ameinu.

The publication of the Sasson report has reignited WZO debate over the Settlement Division. A day after the report's release, 12 members of WZO's executive committee wrote a letter to Sallai Meridor, who chairs both WZO and the Jewish Agency, calling for an "extraordinary meeting" to discuss the report.

Sasson recommended that the government cut the Settlement Division's funding and end its role in the territories. Two members of the WZO executive committee wrote a separate letter calling for these recommendations to be implemented immediately, despite a call by Sharon for the division to remain intact.

Leaders of right-wing American groups, who tend to support West Bank settlements in principle, expressed less concern about the Sasson findings. Mandell Ganchrow, director of Mizrachi Religious Zionists of America, said he saw no need for immediate change: "This will have to be dealt with by the government. It's not fair to point a finger and ask where was the WZO. This had to do with the will of the government of the State of Israel."