World Zionist Congress opens amidst party feuds

Some accuse Peretz of shirking his duties; Katsav talks about Sderot and growth in the Jewish world.

zionist congress 2006 (photo credit: Sasson Tiran)
zionist congress 2006
(photo credit: Sasson Tiran)
Labor critics of Party Chairman Amir Peretz lashed out at the defense minister Monday for using his political clout to muscle in his choice for Jewish Agency Treasurer. They accused Peretz of shirking his defense responsibilities as Kassams fell in Sderot to spend large parts of Saturday night and Sunday lobbying for his candidate, Hagai Merom. However, a Peretz spokesman flatly denied their claims stating that the minister had spent "at the most an hour and a half" on the issue. "Peretz has been working from morning to night on state and security issues," the spokesman said. "These charges are baseless." Merom beat his competitor Moshe Cohen by a vote of 213-140, according to the congress of the World Zionist Organization's Labor delegates, the body that chose between the two candidates. Merom will have to be approved by the entire congress later in the week. Merom endorsed Peretz for the Labor party chairmanship, while Cohen supported his adversary Shimon Peres. Eric Haddad, the outgoing president of the International Labor Party and a member of Labor MK Fuad Ben-Eliezer's camp, said getting Merom elected became a matter of pride for Peretz, who had promised him the post. He called Peretz's lobbying for votes "unacceptable," arguing that Peretz could endorse a candidate but do no more, lest he interfere in the "democratic process" of the elections. Other high-ranking Labor officials told The Jerusalem Post that they were "furious" with the Labor chairman for his "mafiosa style of leadership." "He should not have been spending any time on this when he has a security situation like Sderot on his hands," said one such detractor. "He proved that getting appointments for his cronies was more important to him than dealing with security issues." The officials said they had personally seen Peretz's guards at the hotel and witnessed the defense minister meeting with union heads sway their votes for Moram. In addition to his association with Peres, the candidate running against Moram was known to be affiliated with the Labor Party "rebel quintet," a group of five MKs who have become increasingly active against Peretz. But Arieh Azoulay, chairman of the Jewish Agency's committee on aliya and absorption, defended Peretz. "It's normal political life. There are groups, there are friends, there are streams inside each movement. I don't see why Amir Peretz couldn't have a preference for one candidate or another," he said, adding that Peretz had never told him whom he preferred. The Labor Party also elected Efi Stenzler to run the Jewish National Fund Monday, though the votes cast for him and his competitor, Haddad, was split 130-129. The Labor court was reviewing the tally to make sure there hadn't been an error at press time. After the voting early in the day, the 35th Zionist Congress got off to its official state Monday night, with President Moshe Katsav bearing greetings from the beleaguered Sderot to Jerusalem. Addressing a crowded auditorium at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, Katsav said that although Sderot had been under constant rocket bombardment for five years, the population remained stoic and maintained a patriotic spirit. In a review of Jewish history, from the time of the destruction of the Second Temple to the present day, Katsav said that there had never been a time in which Jews did not migrate to and settle in the Land of Israel. "It would be a tremendous historic breakthrough," he said, "if the Zionist movement could today encourage mass immigration from the West," especially in the face of growing assimilation, which poses a severe threat to Jewish demography. Sixty years after the Holocaust, noted Katsav, the Jewish world remained numerically smaller than it was on the eve of the Holocaust.