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WASHINGTON - One of the largest philanthropic organizations in the United States, the Ford Foundation, has announced it will not renew a five-year $20 million grant program for Israeli non-profit organizations when it runs out in 2013.

The move is expected to be a blow for groups focusing on human rights and aiding minorities in Israel.

The Ford Foundation has contributed $40 million to the New Israel Fund (NIF ) to promote peace and social justice in Israel since 2003. About a third of the NIF's contributions come from the Ford Foundation.

Ford Foundation Media Relations Chief Suzana Grego cited changing priorities rather than criticism of the leftist organizations it supported as the reason for the move.

She denied any pressure had been exerted on the foundation to stop funding for the NIF and said the foundation continues to support new ideas and deal with difficult challenges where they are most needed.

Grego said the NIF was one of over a dozen philanthropic organizations worldwide that the foundation contributed to as part of its International Initiative to Strengthen Philanthropy, which focuses on advancing human rights. "The initiative ended successfully in 2009," Grego noted.

The foundation gave the NIF two grants of $20 million. The second grant, which was awarded in 2007, will end in 2013.

Quoting a Ford Foundation statement, The Forward reported last week that the foundation's support for programs in Israel had exceeded $70 million since 1948 and the foundation would "explore how best to contribute toward democracy and development in the region."

Aaron Back, a spokesman for the Ford Israel Fund, told The Forward that the foundation's commitment "had never been open-ended" and that a recent across-the-board review of priorities by Ford's leadership had triggered significant changes.

"It is 'saddening' to hear the NIF has lost such a considerable contribution," commented Ronen Shoval, head of the rightist group Im Tirzu, that campaigned against the NIF, saying it helped organizations that contributed to Israel's delegitimization.

"Presumably, if the NIF had dealt with helping Israeli society, rather than investing its money and energy in persecuting IDF soldiers, providing assistance to the Goldstone report and the boycott campaign and other anti-Israeli activities, the Ford Foundation would not have pulled out. We call on the NIF to change its way and start supporting Israel, the Jewish people and Zionism," he said.

The NIF spokeswoman in Washington, Naomi Paiss, said the Ford Foundation's announcement to its grantees in Israel came as no surprise to the NIF. "This is how a responsible donor acts, this is how we act as well. You don't help a non-profit organization forever; you help it to develop and strengthen. Many Israeli NPOs are graduates of our program."

She said the NIF would not be adversely affected if it does what it is supposed to do and use the capabilities it has developed.