NEW YORK — Jewish Agency for Israel chairman Avraham Burg has ignited a media melee by saying he is poised to join Israel's cabinet if Prime Minister Shimon Peres is re-elected this fall.
Since making the comments in a Dec. 27 interview with the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, Burg has been dogged in the Israeli media by accusations of opportunism and bad faith in taking the Jewish Agency job as a stepping stone.
His remarks were also said to have demoralized Agency employees already strained by a budget crisis that has forced wholesale program cuts and the taint of a corruption scandal under previous leader Simcha Dinitz.
In a telephone interview last week from Israel, Burg, who assumed the post in June after a hard-fought contest, said he had reaffirmed his commitment to the Agency in front of 200 senior employees at a seminar in the Negev Desert.
But Burg's language leaves little doubt that he is keeping his options open.
"I don't have any plan to leave the Agency for now," he said. "On the contrary, I don't see any other alternative attractive enough to take me off the five years I promised" to give to "the Israel-diaspora relationship."
This "is the single most important mission in my life today," he added. "I'm not going to give it up for political temptation."
The Agency is the principal Israeli recipient of funds raised by diaspora local federations and the United Jewish Appeal and is a symbol of the Israeli-diaspora partnership.
In the Ha'aretz article, a photograph of Burg is captioned: "The natural candidate."
Burg is quoted as saying that he expects to be offered a major cabinet post and that there is a "big chance" that he would resign from the Agency in that event.
"I will be the first candidate from outside the government to be called in as a minister," he told Ha'aretz.
Diaspora leaders of the Agency were clearly dismayed by the Ha'aretz interview, but several said they were not surprised. They sought to downplay the incident and insist that nothing has changed.
Rabbi Brian Lurie, outgoing executive vice president of the United Jewish Appeal, a friend of Burg's and a resident of Ross in Marin County, said Burg "made a mistake and he recognized it."
"He thought it was an informal conversation," Luries said.
Shoshana Cardin, chair of the United Israel Appeal, which funnels UJA money to the Agency, was "not shocked" by the remarks.
"Knowing his background and political ambitions, which he never attempted to conceal, I would assume" he would leave if a government post "came up that he found important enough," she said.
At the same time, Cardin said she welcomed Burg's rededication before Agency employees.
Burg, who resigned from his Labor seat in the Knesset to take the Agency job, made clear his political aspirations when interviewed for the Agency –he hopes ultimately to become prime minister of Israel.
His political stature was considered an asset by supporters, who said it would boost the Agency's image.
The last chairman, Simcha Dinitz, stepped down after being indicted on charges of fraud and abuse of the public trust. A decision in his trial is pending.
At the time, the job appeared ideal for Burg.
A stormy relationship with Yitzhak Rabin limited his options in the government and made the Agency chairmanship the most attractive quasi-political job he could get, observers say.
But Rabin's assassination in November abruptly changed Burg's political fortunes. With his mentor Shimon Peres at the helm of the new government, it was inevitable that Burg would seek to re-enter politics.
Burg refused to talk about the circumstances of the Ha'aretz interview, but the Israeli media's response was harsh.
"Burg launched a major campaign to be appointed chairman of the Jewish Agency," wrote Nachum Barnea in the mass-circulation Israeli daily Yediot Achronot.
"He barely warmed up that seat and he already wants to desert," Barnea wrote. "The lightness with which he hops from job to job does not add weight to his career."
Lurie refuted such charges, saying that no one could have foreseen the changes wrought by Rabin's death.
"There was an assumption that Rabin would continue as prime minister until the year 2000 and the less-than-friendly nature of his relationship with Burg was well-documented," said Lurie.
Burg "correctly analyzed he would have to take an independent path" to fulfill his political aspirations and that path brought him to the Jewish Agency, Lurie said.
But when Peres, "his mentor and political guide," became prime minister of Israel, it was only natural that Burg would re-evaluate his prospects, Lurie said.
Richard Pearlstone, national chairman of the UJA, defended Burg.
"We thought he was absolutely the best person for the [Agency] job," Pearlstone said.
At the same time, "we understood he was a politician," Pearlstone added. In the meantime, Pearlstone said Burg "wants to do what's right by the Jewish people. While he's with us he gives us 100 percent of his effort."
Burg "has vision," Pearlstone added, "and that is more important than anything."