August 27, 2007
By Anshel Pfeffer
September is going to be a big month for Cincinnati lawyer Stanley Chesley. On September 5, Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, will be at his home for a fundraising dinner, with a price tag of $2,300 per ticket, the maximum allowed by federal law. Chesley is no newcomer to the Clinton campaign - he helped raise millions for the Democrats during Bill Clinton's administration in the 1990s, and this March the former president was at Chesley's home raising $400,000 for his wife's campaign.
Ten day's after the Hillary event, Chesley will be in New York for the Jewish National Fund's annual conference, where he will be inaugurated as the organization's new president. And he won't be a stranger to this new job either, having been a member of the JNF's national boards for many years. He has also served on the boards of a host of other Jewish organizations including the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Israel Bonds, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the American Jewish Committee, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and Hebrew Union College, where he serves as national secretary. His law firm - Waite, Schneider, Bayless & Chesley - represented the World Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Restitution Organization in Holocaust litigation in a series of cases involving Swiss and Austrian banks, the Hungarian Gold Train case and German payments for slave labor.
Chesley is best known in the U.S. for this kind of multiparty litigation, having made his fame and fortune over the last 30 years in high-profile injury, corporate and antitrust legal actions, both in the U.S. and internationally. Over the years, these cases have made Chesley many allies, and not surprisingly, a fair share of critics. He also has a reputation for tough-talking bullishness. This bullishness was well in evidence last week when Chesley met Haaretz for a pre-inauguration interview in Jerusalem.
The JNF, or more specifically, its Israeli branch, the Keren Kayemet LeIsrael (KKL), is currently involved in two contentious issues. The first of them concerns building new settlements in the North and especially in the Negev. With the Jewish Agency out of the settlement business, and local environmentalists strongly opposed to building new villages and towns, the emphasis within the planning agencies has moved to strengthening existing settlements, urban areas, development towns, kibbutzim and moshavim, and away from adding new names to the map. This leaves the JNF as the only main Zionist organization still actively boosting new settlement.
The second issue is the recent law that passed its first reading in the Knesset on July 18, stating that all lands under KKL ownership in Israel will continue to be allocated only to Jews. This legislation runs counter to the Supreme Court ruling that also allowed non-Jewish residents to purchase homes in projects built on KKL lands.
Chesley seems unfazed by these challenges facing his organization - in fact he is totally gung-ho about the JNF's plans to invest $600 million in new settlement activity in the Negev and the Galilee.
The environmentalists now seem to have the upper hand in the courts and the planning agencies and they are opposed to building new settlements. Don't you think the JNF should be rethinking its policy?
Chesley: "Look, being an environmentalist is great but if you live in the center of Israel - I've got news - Tel Aviv is getting a little crowded. The Negev is the natural place for new settlement. How can anyone say we shouldn't be building new settlements when you've got 60 percent of Israel's land, the Negev, just waiting?"
The counter-argument to that is that there are so many things that have to be done to improve life in the existing settlements, including the development towns in the Negev, that building new settlements just isn't the main priority anymore.
"We are also taking care of existing places. Just look at our Be'er Sheva River Walk program - we're going to have the river flowing through the city again, and we're building a new park and an artificial lake there."
Still, the "green" organizations insist that building new settlements will tamper with the area's fragile ecosystem.
"We have also become a green organization. We're committed to zero carbon emissions and we're building 'green,' environmentally friendly homes. We're not going to stop building and developing the land because of the greens. All I'm saying is that we can use the land beautifully, it doesn't have to be against the environment. Just look at the advances Israeli technology has made in sprinkler irrigation and in reclaiming brackish water. It's the kind of technology that is now being exported to the U.S. What we have to remember though is that the government is the only organization that can make policy decisions, while we're here to give all the help necessary. That's our unique mission, to help settle the land."
Until the government decides how it wants to proceed, the JNF is working with private organizations like the Or National Missions movement that is building new communities and strengthening existing ones in the Negev and the Galilee.
The JNF has recently been in the headlines over the new law allowing only Jews to use KKL land. What's your take on that?
"This is a Jewish state and our priorities have to be accordingly. Let's not forget that no one took care of the Palestinians more than Israel did. But that's just my personal view, irrespective of the politics of the matter and the Supreme Court cases. But all this just shows that Israel is a democracy that works, and I respect a democracy."
You don't think that the funds the JNF pours into Israel also give you a say when it comes to Israeli policy?
"I take the position that Israel has done more for the Diaspora than the Diaspora has done for Israel - just by coming from the ovens of the Holocaust and building such a wonderfully vibrant country in 60 years. It took the U.S. much longer than that to achieve as much."
But it's not just an issue of who gets to use the land. There is also the question of what to do with the unauthorized Bedouin settlements already existing in the Negev and growing all the time.
"There might be a lot we don't like about the Bedouin settlement practices in the Negev but we work with them on other matters. For us they are also Israeli citizens, many of them serve in the Israel Defense Forces and we have a priority to help integrate them. That's why we are building employment centers for them and working to boost their education levels. When I see the statistics of 60 percent of Bedouin boys getting an education and only 10 percent of girls, I know there's a big problem there and we can help them by building new schools."
You are very active in Democratic politics and are close to Hillary Clinton. How do you think the outcome of the 2008 elections will affect U.S.-Israel ties?
"Whoever will be elected president, whether Democrat or Republican, will be supportive of Israel. And not because of AIPAC, the Jewish lobby or donations, but because they all recognize that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and it remains a democracy despite all the challenges it faces. I mean Israel's situation with its neighbors is like what it would be for us in Ohio if Kentucky was an enemy state always launching attacks against us."
Some Jewish leaders and Israeli politicians are worried about a negative impact if Barack Obama becomes president.
"I have no evidence at all of that. And don't forget that Israel has another incredible backer - Congress."