UJC denying that it planned to offer Arafat an award

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BOSTON — By early October, the plan by United Jewish Communities officials to award Yasser Arafat its Isaiah peace prize was set.

The award itself had already been purchased, Arafat's office had been notified, and the presentation ceremony was set for Oct. 13 at the Palestinian Authority's office in Ramallah.

The ceremony would take place before 120 members of the UJC's Prime Minister's Mission — 78 of whom had contributed at least $100,000 to be on the trip. A draft of the presentation statement was prepared for Joel Tauber, a Detroit businessman and chairman of the UJC's executive committee.

On Oct. 5, just two days before the mission would leave for an eight-day trip to France and Israel, senior UJC staffers were making final arrangements for the tour.

The award to Arafat would signal a new policy direction for the 6-month-old UJC — a merger of United Jewish Appeal, United Israel Appeal and Council of Jewish Federations.

The award also would have marked the first major award to Arafat by a mainstream American Jewish organization. Arafat would have joined such past Isaiah Award recipients as President Bill Clinton, slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and former South African President Nelson Mandela.

But in the early afternoon of Oct. 5, the dreams of UJC executives to present Arafat with the award slowly began to unravel. The plans changed slightly when the UJC was informed that Arafat would be in Tokyo and could not accept the award in person. However, senior Palestinian Authority officials would be on hand to accept the award for Arafat.

As detailed in the Jewish Advocate, a high ranking Jewish Agency official in Israel provided written documentation — an internal memo from the UJC to the Jewish Agency in Israel in early October — that the award had already been purchased and that Arafat knew about the award.

On Oct. 5, newly appointed UJC President Stephen Solender was asked to comment on the report. He replied, "Let me check on it, and I'll call you back. I may be out of the loop."

Shortly afterward, a UJC communications assistant contacted the Advocate and confirmed that Arafat, indeed, would receive the award during the Prime Minister's Mission.

"It's in recognition of his participation in the peace process," the UJC staffer said. "We are concerned about peace and the welfare of the Jews in the world and Mr. Arafat is a partner with Israel in the peace process."

Later in the day, however, the same communications assistant called the Advocate and said that the UJC had decided not to give Arafat the award "because he will be in Tokyo" and would not be able to receive it.

Solender and UJC spokeswoman Gail Hyman then went one step further, denying that Arafat was ever to be the recipient.

Despite the denial by the UJC, the Advocate received further confirmation that Arafat was slated to receive the award.

Dr. Anis Al-Qaq, head of the Palestinian Authority's department of international cooperation, stated that he had been informed by a United Israel Office staff member in Jerusalem, Ronit Dotan, that press reports of the cancellation of the award to Arafat were wrong and that the UJC still planned to give Arafat the award at a later date.

According to Al-Qaq, Dotan said the only reason UJC did not give the award to Arafat was that he was in Tokyo, and they wanted to present it to him in person.

Norman Eisenberg, a spokesman for UJC in New York, said he could not respond in depth.

"I can only tell you that what the facts are as we are stating it. That is, the award is not going to be presented this year, period. Yasser Arafat's name was floated; it was decided not to give the award this year to any individual. And that's where the situation stands as of now," he said.

Despite the continued denial, the Advocate has received additional documentation this week about the award from a high-level Jewish Agency official — a draft of the planned presentation statement to be presented by Joel Tauber.

The document reads in part: "This is an historic moment in terms of the relations between the American Jewish community and the Palestinian National Authority…Today, the Prime Minister's Mission will present Yasser Arafat with the Isaiah Award 'For Efforts To Hasten The Prophet Isaiah's Vision For All People.'"

When reached in Jerusalem last week, Tauber denied that he wrote the document. He also said he was unaware of plans to give the award to Arafat.

Also on Tuesday, a cabinet minister closely aligned with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak told the Advocate that he was aware of the planned award but applauded the decision by the UJC not to go through with it.

"It is too soon to give the award now — perhaps in two years when reality is different," he said.

When asked about the policy of selecting the Isaiah Award winner, the UJC's Hyman said that protocols were being reviewed and that a new policy for selecting a winner may be created in the future.

"New protocols need to be established for UJC. We're working on developing those now," Hyman said.