Jewish Agency denies wanting to settle the territories

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NEW YORK — An Israeli newspaper report has made waves by implying that the Jewish Agency for Israel is planning to take part in a project to settle European and U.S. immigrants in the territories.

But some close to the agency dismiss the report as inaccurate or a result of confusion between the agency and its sister group, the World Zionist Organization. The WZO does run settlement projects, paid for with government money, across the so-called Green Line that divides Israel proper from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Jewish Agency is the principal recipient in Israel of funds raised by the joint annual campaigns of the United Jewish Appeal and local federations. The WZO is the umbrella association for Zionist federations worldwide. It promotes Zionist education and activities as well as the immigration of Jews from the West.

The agency traditionally has refrained from funding projects beyond the Green Line, largely in deference to political sensitivities between the United States and Israel.

U.S. administrations have made it clear over the years that they would rather the quasi-governmental agency not be involved because they do not recognize the territories as part of Israel proper.

The agency receives U.S. grants for refugee resettlement.

The article published in the daily newspaper Ha'aretz reported that the plan was being orchestrated by Sali Meridor, head of the settlement division of the WZO, and Uri Gordon, head of the immigration and absorption department of the Jewish Agency.

But the claim that the agency would become involved in such a plan was sharply discounted by Shoshana Cardin, chair of the United Israel Appeal, which is the Jewish Agency's representative in the United States and the conduit for UJA money to the agency.

"The Jewish Agency is not involved in this, [and] has not at any time authorized or engaged in any activities in the territories," she said. "I see this as a WZO-initiated action."

In fact, the WZO settlement division historically has been involved in projects across the Green Line under both Likud and Labor governments.

But such projects, along with all other activities of the division, are funded entirely with government money, Meridor said while visiting the United States.

The complication comes from the fact that Gordon also is the chairman of the WZO's immigration division. This division is funded by a campaign of diaspora Jews not living in the United States, called Keren Hayesod.

Gordon sits on the WZO executive board with Meridor; strictly speaking, if Gordon were acting in his WZO capacity while working on the proposal with Meridor, there would be no apparent violation of precedent or practice.

But Gordon reportedly confused the matter by issuing material on the settlement proposal under his Jewish Agency letterhead.

The developments drew fire from Avraham Burg, chairman of both the Jewish Agency and the WZO.

He wrote a three-page letter to Gordon saying that he had no knowledge of the plan, found the reports "very disturbing" and wanted an immediate report clarifying the matter.

"If the program is designated for the Jewish Agency, I demand that all activities within this framework be halted until further notice and until the management of the Jewish Agency has investigated the issue," he wrote.