NEW YORK (Jan. 31)
Ronald Lauder’s bid for America’s top Jewish leadership position could hinge on one little word: No.
That was the philanthropist and cosmetics heir’s response in early January when the nominating committee of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations asked, “Did you give money to Benjamin Netanyahu?”
Now a cover story in the Jan. 29 edition of the New York Jewish Week suggests that some of Lauder’s political ties and financial contributions may have worked to support the Israeli prime minister’s 1996 election campaign.
As word of the story circulates, representatives from some of the umbrella group’s 51 member organizations are questioning whether plans for Lauder’s election as chairman should go forward as planned.
If the article’s allegations are true, a number of conference members said in interviews, then Lauder’s answer was technically accurate, but evasive.
“If he wasn’t being truthful, then the nomination should be taken off the table,” said a seasoned conference member who asked not to be identified. “I don’t see how the nomination can go forward with this on the table.”
But other members said they saw no reason to delay the vote or scuttle Lauder’s nomination.
Lauder himself has downplayed the article and said he saw no reason to delay the vote.
The chairman of the group’s nominating committee, Leon Levy, said there had been “no change” of plans.
Members of the Presidents’ Conference are scheduled to meet Wednesday to confirm Lauder’s nomination, which was unanimously recommended in mid-January by the nominating committee’s seven members.
That decision came after several of them, responding to rumors of Lauder’s financial relationship to the Israeli premier, asked that their vote be delayed until the committee could look into Lauder’s campaign contribution record in Israel.
The Presidents’ Conference is a consensus-based group representing the views of Jewish organizations from across the spectrum of religious and political perspectives to the U.S. administration and world leaders.
The issue of Lauder’s connection to Netanyahu had first come up because some members feared that Lauder’s well-known ideological support for Likud would negatively affect his ability to convey their collective opinion to Washington and Israel, and that his connection to Netanyahu might alienate other Israeli leaders. But it was the financial issue that most concerned committee members.
“A few of us were looking for proof,” said committee member Judy Silverman, the president of Women of Reform Judaism, “but nobody could find anything.”
Lacking concrete evidence of wrongdoing, and based on his interview in which he denied any financial connection, Silverman said, even those who had been “on the fence” about Lauder’s nomination cast their ballot for the Jewish National Fund president.
“It’s his strong attributes in the rest of the Jewish world that far outweighed any thought of blemish on the man,” said Levy, a former Presidents’ Conference chairman and the president of the American Sephardi Federation.
The Jewish Week article, however, has set the questions swirling again.
A group of about 20 conference members, who describe themselves as “pro-Oslo” peace accords, held a conference call Jan. 28, the day the story broke, during which they discussed ways to make their concerns about Lauder’s candidacy known to the nominating committee and to the current conference chairman, Melvin Salberg.
Mark Rosenblum, the political director for Americans for Peace Now, said the callers were seeking “not a rush to judgment, but a pause for consideration” and the creation of “an environment where questions could be answered.”
Responding to the controversy, Lauder maintained that there was no reason to delay the vote.
The press report, he told JTA, included “nothing remotely indicating” that he had given money to Netanyahu. He said he intends to “try to make the Conference of Presidents as strong as possible.” He has said repeatedly that he will work to forge agreements among conference members.
The investigative article — written by reporters from the Jewish Week and the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz — raises what it calls the “possible existence of flows of cash and indirect support from Lauder to Netanyahu’s political activities.”
The article bolsters previous reports of some staff-swapping between Lauder and Netanyahu, including the premier’s 1996 American campaign strategist, Arthur Finkelstein, who served as Lauder’s consultant during his unsuccessful 1989 run for the New York mayor’s office.
Among other points, the Jewish Week article:
details Lauder’s chairmanship and hefty contributions to the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem think-tank whose executive director and fund-raiser worked on Netanyahu’s campaign.
documents a $36,415 contribution Lauder made in 1994 to the short-lived Israel Research Foundation. The Philadelphia-based non-profit with strong links to the Likud Party spent most of its money, the report says, on salaries and “administrative and travel expenses for unspecified individuals.”
That sum, others say, pales in comparison to Lauder’s philanthropy. Each year, for example, the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation spends millions of dollars on Jewish schools and programs in Eastern and Central Europe.
In a brief interview with JTA, Lauder did not respond to each allegation, but said the article included some “fabrications,” and that the reporters had been “reaching back to 1994″ for some of their information.
Israeli law prohibits Israeli political campaigns from receiving direct contributions from foreigners. But giving money to cover campaign needs or other forms of indirect support is legal and widespread.
“Many, many American Jewish leaders make it a practice,” said Phil Baum, the executive director of the American Jewish Congress, who added that he believed the practice was “foolish and harmful.”
Referring to the Jewish Week story, Baum said, “If [Lauder] did what everybody else does, it’s certainly not a disqualification, but I think it would be better if nobody did it.”
Many others also discounted the seriousness of the Jewish Week’s implications.
“There is no question that some will see this as an opportunity to try to undo the nominating committee’s recommendation,” said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
“But I do not see in the findings anything of a significant enough nature that would get to the essence of [Lauder's] representation” or the committee’s decision, Foxman said.
Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the conference, said the intense scrutiny of candidates “is destroying the attractiveness” of the chairmanship. “Everybody has attachments, they’re not political eunuchs.”
Foxman echoed this position.
“No candidate worthy of anything comes to this role without any background and experience with the leadership of Israel, all of whom are political,” he said.
“If you found someone with no connections, I’m not sure he would qualify to start with.”