Jewish Agency chief eyes Cabinet post under Peres

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NEW YORK — Jewish Agency chairman Avraham Burg is reconsidering his political prospects now that Shimon Peres is at the helm of the Israeli government, say sources close to Burg.

The charismatic Burg, who took over the chairmanship earlier this year after a hotly contested Labor Party race, is said to be eyeing a minister's post.

Peres announced his new Cabinet Tuesday. But insiders who declined to be named say it is still possible Burg could get a ministerial portfolio in the coming months.

However, they say it is more likely he would assume a Cabinet post in the next government if Peres wins the election in November.

Burg could not be reached for comment. Sources close to him said he had "gone into the mountains with his wife to think" about his future after last week's General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations in Boston.

To comply with Jewish Agency bylaws and become chairman, Burg had to resign from the Knesset, where he was head of the education committee after receiving among the highest number of votes in the Labor Party primaries prior to the 1992 election.

When he was being interviewed for the agency chairmanship by diaspora fund-raisers, Burg never hid his aspirations to return to the political arena, said sources involved with the process.

It was always clear to most that Burg was using his reform of the agency as a vehicle to raise his political profile in the same way his cohorts, Haim Ramon and Yossi Beilin, both ministers in the new Cabinet, raised theirs by seeking to shake up old institutions.

The agency is the principal Israeli recipient of funds raised by local diaspora federations and the United Jewish Appeal.

The chairman is nominated by the Israeli political party currently in power and elected by the World Zionist Organization, while diaspora fund-raisers can veto the choice.

One source close to Burg said he might want to be a minister of Jewish affairs and still retain the Jewish Agency chairmanship. But that will probably not be acceptable to the agency's diaspora partners. Others say Burg would prefer the education or religious affairs portfolios.

With Yitzhak Rabin as prime minister, Burg's prospects for a Cabinet post were slim. As it was, Rabin strongly favored Burg's rival for the chairmanship of the agency, Yehiel Leket, a longtime Jewish Agency-WZO official.

But with Peres as prime minister, the landscape appears far more fertile for Burg's advancement.

Burg could be given a Cabinet post without being a member of Knesset. If he decides to run for Knesset elections, he would have to enter his name in the Labor Party primaries by next spring.

Sources said it was unlikely that Burg would walk away from the chairmanship before completing at least a year of tenure.

At the same time, however, Burg was evidently stung by his treatment at last month's General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations, where 4,000 lay and professional Jewish communal leaders were gathered.

Burg was exhilarated by the crowds at the various forums at which he spoke. He used this as evidence of a renewed interest in the Israeli-diaspora partnership.

But at the main and final plenary Nov. 16, Burg did not participate.

According to the original program, Burg was slated to be the final speaker, but his name did not appear on the agenda distributed that evening.

After a speech by Peres delivered by satellite, UJA President Joel Tauber said Burg was scheduled to speak but because of the lateness of the hour had "graciously" declined to take up any more of the delegates' time.