NEW YORK, Jan. 14 (JTA) — The vote has yet to be cast, but the contest for one of American Jewry’s top positions is all but decided. Ronald Lauder, cosmetics company heir and president of the Jewish National Fund, has been named unanimously by the nominating committee of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations as its choice to lead the 55-member umbrella group, which voices the American Jewish community’s political concerns to the White House, Israel and other world leaders. Although five other candidates’ names remain on the ballot, Lauder, a friend of both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and New York Gov. George Pataki, is the presumed successor to Chairman Melvin Salberg. An election scheduled to take place over the next 30 days. He would take office in June, after a short overlap with Salberg. “If history repeats itself, that’ll be the case,” said Salberg, the president of the American Zionist Movement, who is finishing his second yearlong term as conference chairman. “I’m not aware of [a case in which] the recommendation of the committee has not been followed.” Lauder comes to the position with a powerful resume — and a close friend in conference Executive Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein. But his political ties have caused concern among some conference members. Representatives of about 20 groups that support the Oslo peace process and religious pluralism in Israel participated in a conference call Wednesday to discuss Lauder’s nomination. But since his election is almost a foregone conclusion, these organizations are focusing not on opposing him but on how he will lead the umbrella group. Can Lauder forge agreement among their ranks, and alternatively, will he remain silent when a consensus cannot be reached on an issue, they asked. “These are strong-willed people,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations. “He may come in with a reputation, but after the first five minutes, it doesn’t mean anything.” Complimenting Salberg, Yoffie also cautioned that “it is important to have a strong, hands-on chairman who will not turn matters over to the staff, but will take an active role in bringing people together.” A relative newcomer to the Conference, Lauder is a prominent businessman with an extensive philanthropic portfolio. The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, founded in 1987, has been at the forefront of Jewish revival, education and community outreach programs throughout Europe and the former Soviet Union. He serves as the chairman of the Commission for Art Recovery and treasurer of the World Jewish Congress and is the chairman of the board of trustees for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as well as numerous Jewish and educational institutions. But his warm relationship with Netanyahu raised questions about his ability to represent the full Conference, which has split most recently over the Israeli- Palestinian peace process. Some fear that the Israeli election scheduled for May 17 — with a potential runoff to take place on June 1 — could cause problems for the group should Netanyahu be defeated. Lauder could not be reached for comment. In a telephone interview, Hoenlein insisted on the chairman’s obligation to be politically neutral in his official capacity, a principle reiterated by Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, who served as chairman of the conference from 1976 to 1979. A former long-time UAHC president, Schindler’s well-known leftist leanings did not keep him from expressing unwavering support for Menachem Begin’s Likud government when it was elected in 1977. Of Lauder, Schindler said, “The fact that he is close to Netanyahu is not a problem if he understands what his particular role here is.” When it comes to domestic politics, some expressed concerns that Lauder’s support of Republican politicians, including Pataki and former Senator Alfonse D’Amato, of New York, would pose obstacles in the Conference’s dealings with the Clinton administration. Lauder ran on the Conservative Party ticket in the 1989 New York mayoral election. But a White House official was open to creating a relationship with Lauder. “He’s not a very big fan of the Clintons,” a White House official said. “But we will work with whoever is elected,” this official said. Rising to Lauder’s defense, Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, pointed out that the chairmanship is not a political position. “Let’s not forget that the majority of the House and Senate are Republican. The leaders of the House and Senate are Republican. Maybe there’s a value [in having a chairman identified with the Republican Party]. It cuts both ways.” Lauder’s ambitions for the Conference chairmanship have been known for several years since his position at JNF, which he accepted in 1996, placed him in the running for the position at the Conference. He was chosen by the seven-member nominating committee, appointed by Salberg and led by former Chairman Leon Levy, the president of the American Sephardic Federation. Other nominees in what one leader described as a “vigorously” contested challenge included Dr. Mandell Ganchrow of the Orthodox Union, Philip Meltzer of the Association of Reform Zionists of America and Robert Rifkind, the immediate past president of the American Jewish Committee. Marlene Post, the president of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, and Nan Rich, the president of the National Council of Jewish Women, withdrew their names from consideration.
Ronald Lauder is nominated to lead Conference of Presidents