NEW YORK (JTA) – The president of the World Jewish Congress has roiled the organization’s branch in Israel by writing to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with a plea to allow Diaspora Jews a voice in any decisions on Jerusalem’s future.
Ronald Lauder in his Jan. 8 letter, on WJC letterhead, wished Olmert success during President Bush’s visit to the region and expressed the hope of world Jewry that Israel can attain peace.
Lauder closed the letter urging Olmert that he should take into consideration “the prayers, the hopes, and the views of Jews around the world when you discuss the future” of Jerusalem.
“While recognizing Israel’s inherent prerogatives as a sovereign state,” Lauder wrote, “it is inconceivable that any changes in the status of our Holy City will be implemented without giving the Jewish people, as a whole, a voice in the decision.”
Among those complaining about the letter is Shai Hermesh, the chairman of the WJC’s Israel branch, which was listed at the top of the letterhead along with the WJC’s world headquarters in New York.
Hermesh said the letter was sent without any consultation with the Israel branch and contradicts the WJC’s longstanding policy of keeping out of Israel’s political affairs.
“Ronald Lauder is allowed to print a letter or do whatever he wants, but he should take into consideration that never, never, never in the past did Jews in the Diaspora make decisions for Israel,” Hermesh told JTA in a telephone interview Tuesday.
“We feel that Jews around the world are our brothers and their support is very important to us, but political decisions should be taken only by the Knesset and no one else, including the Israeli branch of the World Jewish Congress. That is totally unacceptable by us. Decisions should be taken only by the elected government and no one else.”
The flap over Lauder’s letter comes as right-wing and Orthodox groups in America are waging a campaign to keep Israel from sharing or dividing Jerusalem in any future deal with the Palestinians. The effort has reignited the argument over what role, if any, Diaspora Jews should have in deciding Israeli policy.
Lauder told JTA that he sent the letter without consulting the WJC’s governing body, though he did run it by the WJC’s secretary-general, Michael Schneider.
Schneider said he approved of the letter, as long as Lauder made it clear that Israel is a sovereign state with the ultimate right to make its own decisions.
The goal of the letter, Lauder said, was not to pressure Olmert or Israel into taking a hard-line stand on Jerusalem, but to foster debate on what he sees as the most important decision facing the country.
Lauder added that he would not have taken a similar step regarding other territory up for discussion, including the Gaza Strip, West Bank or Golan Heights.
“The letter simply states that it was important to discuss Jerusalem with the Jews of the Diaspora because we all play a role and Jerusalem is a key factor,” Lauder said.
The WJC was not going to take an official position on Jerusalem, he added.
“I was speaking for both the World Jewish Congress and the Jews of the Diaspora, and saying please listen to the Jews of the Diaspora,” Lauder said.
Lauder said he was unaware of any protocol for sending out such a letter on WJC letterhead, but felt he had to act quickly.
“That is the job of the World Jewish Congress,” he said.
The spat could signify a clash of personal political differences of WJC officials. Lauder has been a longtime supporter of hawkish factions and leaders in Israel, including Knesset opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Hermesh is a member of Olmert’s Kadima party.
The feud that ultimately led to years of scandal and turmoil at the WJC began with a fight over the decision by Edgar Bronfman, Lauder’s predecessor and a supporter of left-wing Israeli politicians, to send a letter on his own stationery to Bush urging him to pressure Israel to cease settlement construction.
Hermesh and Lauder dismissed any suggestion that a political fight was brewing, saying that the WJC’s policy is to avoid jumping into Israel’s political fray as an organization.
Lauder, who took over in June as WJC president after a contentious battle against Bronfman’s son, Matthew, has long been an outspoken critic of any plan to divide Jerusalem.
In 2001, when he was the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Lauder sought permission from the umbrella body to speak at a rally in Jerusalem that was organized to head off the reported willingness of then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to make concessions on the city’s status in talks with the Palestinians.
After failing to secure approval, Lauder proceeded to speak at the rally anyway, saying he was doing so as a private individual. His decision to speak at that event pushed the Presidents Conference to adopt a policy forbidding its chairman from speaking publicly unless he or she has a clear mandate from its member organizations.
Matthew Bronfman, who ultimately became chairman of the WJC’s governing board after deciding last spring to run on a joint ticket with Lauder, was in Latin America and unavailable for comment, Schneider said.
Contacted by JTA about the issue, Mendel Kaplan, the chairman of the WJC’s executive, a separate body from the governing board, was vacationing in Cape Town and said he was unaware of the letter. Kaplan, a South African steel magnate, was Lauder and Bronfman’s primary opponent in the leadership election last year.
Lauder’s letter comes after Olmert took heat in November for telling reporters that Diaspora Jews should not have a say in what Israel does regarding Jerusalem. Those remarks came as right-wing groups tried to put pressure on the prime minister in the lead-up to the peace gathering in Annapolis, Md.
Olmert later clarified that he welcomed comments from Diaspora Jews, but never rescinded his position that Israel alone is sovereign in conducting negotiations.
The issue of Lauder’s letter was raised Monday in a conference call Olmert held with members of the Presidents Conference.
Olmert, according to one member on the call, said he agreed with Lauder that Diaspora Jews should have a voice and Israel should at least listen to it before acting.
“Olmert completely agreed,” said the member, who wished to remain anonymous because the call was closed to the press. “He couldn’t have been more forthcoming in agreeing with Lauder’s sentiments.”