Exclusive: WJC expected to split

Follows months-old internecine struggle over control of Jerusalem office.

In an unprecedented move, the New York based World Jewish Congress is expected to split after a blistering months-old internecine struggle over control of its Jerusalem office, officials in the organization said Thursday. The bitter organizational debate over who would run the group's Israel branch hit a new peak late Wednesday when Israeli and European members of the group's steering committee said that their telephone microphones were cut off during a critical international group conference call meeting, prompting them to say they would leave the organization altogether. The meeting, which was headed by group President Edgar M. Bronfman, adopted a controversial resolution which indefinitely suspends all funding to its Israel branch, initiates an audit of the Jerusalem office over the last decade, terminates the employment of its Israel director Bobby Brown, and appoints Bronfman to select the new head of the Jerusalem office by the end of the month if a candidate is not unanimously chosen by a previously announced committee in the next two weeks. In a separate surprise announcement, the organization also decided to fire longtime organization official Israel Singer, the World Jewish Congress said. The moves, coming on the heels of the six-month long struggle over control of the Jerusalem office in an organization long plagued by internal wrangling, prompted European and Israeli leaders to warn they would pull out of the organization if the proposed resolution went ahead. "At the beginning of the conference call we registered our participation, but after a few minutes we were shocked to discover that under strange circumstances we were disconnected from the microphone... In other word this conference call was not legal, since we, and others, were excluded. Therefore we regard as null and void all the decisions taken during that discussion," the head of the Israeli board of the WJC MK Shai Hermesh (Kadima) and Steering Committee member Mati Droblas wrote Bronfman in a letter immediately after the Wednesday conference call meeting. "If our demand for a [new] steering committee [meeting] is not accepted, than a motion with our executive will be raised to withdraw from the WJC, because it will no longer be the home in which we have invested our heart and soul. "What was done this evening is a disgrace to any organization that calls itself "Jewish," the blistering letter concluded. A similar letter was sent out to New York late Wednesday by a top European leader of the organization. "My microphone was cut off after a few minutes and I could only listen but not talk and be heard," the President of the European Jewish Congress Pierre Besnainou wrote Bronfman in a separate letter. "What seems to be a technical problem apparently occurred as well with some of our Israeli counterparts which is regrettable," Besnainou wrote. Besnainou urged Bronfman, in light of the telephone occurrence, not to take any major decisions except for the audit of the Jerusalem office. "In case my recommendation will not be follow, [sic] after consulting with the Executive of the EJC, and based on a collegial decision, we may consider to withdraw temporarily the EJC affiliation to the WJC," he wrote. Copies of both letters were obtained Thursday by The Jerusalem Post. The New York office of the World Jewish Congress said Thursday in response to a Post query that they do not know that any microphones were shut off during the conference call. "When the WJC first learned of the allegations, the WJC contacted [the] Verizon [telephone company] and asked them to conduct and complete investigation into the matter and to provide the WJC with a written report of what transpired," the group said in a written statement. "If anyone was having difficulty during the conference call they could have contacted the Verizon operator to correct the problem, or Mr. Bronfman's office. No one from Israel contacted Mr. Bronfman's office." The New York office added that "with a quorum present and voting," the World Jewish Congress Steering Committee adopted the proposed resolution. The planned audit of the Jerusalem office follows allegations by New York of "financial impropriety, political corruption or personal posturing" in the office, according to an internal WJC e-mail. "We are disgusted by what has just transpired...If there were any criminal activities on the part of WJC officials you are obliged to bring these to the attention of the police at once," the Israeli letter countered in response. The original dispute in the organization stemmed from the appointment of Israeli Ambassador to the European Union Oded Eran to head the Jerusalem office of the World Jewish Congress. The appointment was seen by members of the Israeli board as an attempt by the organization's New York based secretary general Stephen E. Herbits to by-pass the Jerusalem office with a hand-picked appointment who will serve as his personal emissary. Herbits was originally brought to the organization by Bronfman as part of an attempt to clean up the group following much-publicized allegations of financial mismanagement. The decisions taken at the meeting -- with the elderly Bronfman siding unequivocally with Herbits and against the Jerusalem office -- come just weeks after the organization had announced that a four-member committee was chosen to select a new Israel director, in a compromise move which had unequivocally endorsed the independence of the Israel office of the World Jewish Congress, but required unanimous approval for the appointment of the next Israel branch head. The decision to appoint Bronfman as a fifth member of the committee who will be authorized to appoint a new Israel director by the end of his month on his own if one was not chosen by then was seen as a victory for Eran, who had temporarily returned to his foreign ministry posting following the public fallout over his appointment. Eran is now due to complete his term at the end of the month. He has declined comment on the issue pending his status as a foreign ministry official. The New York office has called Eran "uniquely qualified" for the $250,000 a year job. It was not immediately clear Thursday how any Bronfman- appointed Israel Director would work in Israel legally if the local office has broken away from the organization. The Jerusalem office of the World Jewish Congress has been listed as a non-profit organization in Israel for over a quarter a century. A Justice Ministry spokesman has previously said that a second company with the same name as a previously listed NGO cannot be established without the accord of the NGO. A split in the organization would come just months before this year's expected election of President of the World Jewish Congress after Bronfman, 77, steps down, having served in the position for a quarter century. The election, which has not been scheduled but could take place as early as a June Brussels meeting, is expected to pit Bronfman's son Matthew against JNF President Ronald S. Lauder in what has already been billed as 'the battle of the billionaires.'