The Ultimate Middle Man


Gone from an end table near the sofa in Ronald Lauder’s elegant Midtown office, high above Fifth Avenue, is the framed photo of him with his friend Benjamin Netanyahu. In its place, says someone who’s visited the office before, is a photo of the 55-year-old businessman, philanthropist and Jewish leader with the current Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak.

Ronald Lauder is a pragmatist.As chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, he says his primary goal is to “take our lead from the government in Jerusalem and help Israel.” These days that means supporting Barak and his aggressive attempt to make peace with the Palestinians and the Syrians. Lauder says that presents no problems for him, despite the fact that he was a strong supporter of Netanyahu, who was far more cautious on the peace front.

“I have an excellent relationship with Barak in the last few years,” he says during one of two exclusive interviews. “He understands my relationship with Bibi.” (Yet when Barak came to New York last summer for the first time as prime minister, observers noted that he met with the dovish Israel Policy Forum and with less than a full contingent of Presidents Conference members.)When Lauder was nominated to chair the Presidents Conference a year ago, several of the 55-member organization’s national leaders expressed reservations about his potential conflicts of interest and his strong, right-leaning and quite public ideological beliefs regarding the Mideast and domestic issues. Some felt he was so closely aligned with Netanyahu that he could not serve as a neutral chairman.But on the eve of his nomination for a second one-year term, Lauder is receiving high marks, even from those who were skeptical a year ago.

“He put a lot of doubts to a very early rest,” says David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “He came in with strongly partisan views, which he never tried to hide. But he understood that he had to switch gears, to try to find and reflect consensus, and he has done that quite smoothly.”“There are potential conflicts of interest,” says Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, “but none have surfaced.” Foxman, an early and consistent supporter of Lauder, says the conference chairman was “underestimated by some who may have been jealous or skeptical,” but that he has proven to be a leader with vision and follow-through.Others, though, speaking off the record, note that Lauder contributes generously to a wide range of Jewish causes and organizations, including many represented by the conference, and suggest that it would be foolhardy for leaders to criticize him.Lauder is the first to acknowledge that he “wears many hats,” some of which at least give the impression of conflicting interests. He is chairman of the Museum of Modern Art as well as chairman of the Jewish community’s Commission for Art Recovery, which took opposing sides on the Egon Schiele case involving efforts to recover Nazi-looted art. He is deeply involved in Eastern Europe, where his flagship TV station featured soft-core pornography and extensive violence and where his Ronald Lauder Foundation has been instrumental in restoring and reviving Jewish life. And he was reported to be Netanyahu’s secret go-between in Israel’s peace dealings with Syrian President Hafez Assad and now supports the Barak government’s efforts.

So who is Ronald Lauder, and what does he believe in? He is a world Jewish leader who remains largely unknown in the Jewish world. Several conference members say Lauder has bent over backward to keep his personal politics out of his work, while another says “a leopard doesn’t change his spots,” suggesting that the group’s response to Barak’s peace efforts has been correct but less than enthusiastic.Lauder is a new breed of conference chair, remote to many of his fellow organizational presidents who worked their way up the communal ladder and are accessible and known to all. From his aerie 46 stories over Central Park, he seems above the Jewish fray, buffered by staff and removed from communal wranglings. A tall man with a patrician bearing and an air of formality, the former U.S. ambassador to Austria is polite enough, taking pleasure in showing a visitor to his office some of the priceless paintings and sculpture from his extensive collection, primarily of 20th century German and Austrian art. But his style is studied and a bit stiff.

In preparing for our two recent meetings, Lauder appears to have been carefully briefed by staff and public relations officials, and he spends much of the interviews advancing a well-scripted agenda of “talking points,” rarely deviating or elaborating.“He’s not an off-the-cuff kind of guy,” one Jewish leader said.But he is an enigmatic one, in many ways a man in the middle, whose closeness to Netanyahu put him at the center of negotiations between Israel and Syria. Lauder won’t speak publicly about his middle-man role with Syria but suggests that none of the Jerusalem governments over the last decade, left and right, have differed widely in their proposed approaches to Damascus.He denies reports that he contributed to Netanyahu’s re-election campaign, though he acknowledged that he was pressured to do so. “I don’t think Americans should be involved” as contributors to Israeli political campaign, he says, in effect agreeing with the law. And he insists that he has been “100 percent supportive” of Israel’s peace efforts “since taking the chairmanship of the Presidents Conference,” asserting that an agreement with Syria could bring enormous benefits to Israel.“It’s a new world,” Lauder says, explaining that what seemed impossible even 10 years ago regarding Israel’s relationship with the Arabs has all changed.No Conflict Of InterestThere’s a new world, as well, in Jewish communal life, where over the last decade wealthy philanthropists like Charles and Edgar Bronfman, Leslie Wexner, Michael Steinhardt and Lauder seem to have eclipsed the mainstream organizations in terms of influence and vision. Lauder’s effort, for example, to revitalize Jewish life in Eastern and Central Europe through his foundation has been widely praised as having a profound, positive impact.“For that alone he’s a tzaddik,” says one Jewish leader, using the Hebrew word for righteous person.Why, then, does Lauder need the burden of organizational leadership? He does not explain in as many words, but surely the allure of the conference chairmanship appealed to him, and his commitment to help strengthen Jewish causes is deep.

Much of what he does as chairman of the Presidents Conference in supporting Israel and world Jewry requires behind-the-scenes negotiations. In recent months he has spent much time lobbying foreign governments on behalf of the 13 Iranian Jews charged with spying for Israel.

In general, Lauder says that his knowledge of international issues, his financial stature and his prominence have helped him “enormously” in his role as chairman of the conference, giving him access to world leaders.“I only wear one hat when I deal with Jewish organizational life,” Lauder says, “so there’s no conflict. I look for ways to unite us and help Israel.”

“I’m a very hands-on chairman,” he says, “and I’ve made the conference my most important hat during my tenure.” He pulls out of his pocket a printed schedule for the day, noting the almost nonstop pace of meetings related to his role as chairman of the conference, including a meeting with government and Jewish communal leaders from Poland to discuss Holocaust restitution.“They all trust me,” he says. “They know that I’ve invested in Polish schools and care about world Jewry.”He admits, though, that the dispute over the Schiele paintings placed him in a difficult position. “I’ve played a neutral role and tried not to put myself in the middle,” he says, sitting besides a large Schiele painting from his extensive personal collection. But he adds that he felt Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau was wrong in taking legal action to prevent the return to Austria of two Schiele paintings that MoMA had borrowed for an exhibition.“Austria has excellent laws for returning stolen art,” Lauder offers. “I said, the best thing is to let the pieces go back to Austria and trust the government in Vienna to return them.”

The case remains unresolved.Finding His Jewish SelfIt was in Vienna in the mid-1980s that Ronald Lauder began to assert his Jewishness.

“I was the most assimilated Jew this side of California,” Lauder says of his upbringing as the son of Joseph and Estee Lauder, the cosmetics magnate. All that changed abruptly during his tenure as U.S. ambassador to Austria, during the presidency of Kurt Waldheim, who was being accused at the time of having ties to the Nazis during World War II.As part of the Austrian backlash, Lauder witnessed local anti-Semitism, and it inspired him to become more active in Jewish life.In 1987, a year after he completed his post, he launched his foundation to help spark a renaissance of Jewish life in Eastern and Central Europe. The foundation has built and/or supported more than 20 Jewish schools in the region, aiming to reach and attract every Jewish child, and garnering praise for Lauder from virtually every segment of the Jewish community.In 1989, Lauder spent about $14 million in his short-lived quest to win the Republican primary for mayor of New York, advocating for term limits.

Five years later he founded RSL Communications, a global telecommunications company, which he says aims to spread democracy. But some of its dealings have stirred controversy. (See accompanying story.)In our conversations, Lauder returns several times to the requirements of and need for leadership. “It’s the most important thing in the world today,” he says, noting that in the past, in Europe, rabbis played that role in their communities. But young people now have a difficult time identifying Jewish role models, he says.With so many multimillionaires in national Jewish leadership positions, is it any wonder that people assume wealth is a requirement?Lauder responds indirectly, asserting that “if you want to be a Jewish leader, you have to be successful in your profession,” though he acknowledges that the volunteer commitment requires “a great deal of time and can cause conflict.”

Leadership, he says, requires “dedication, vision and knowing where the Jewish people should be going.”“The number of people involved in Jewish life today is declining,” he says. “We’re not getting our message out to the unaffiliated.”He does not propose what that message should be, though, other than noting the need to deal with “the most serious problems facing American Jewry,” which he defines as assimilation and intermarriage, the lack of a definition for Zionism for the 21st century, and insufficient leadership.

In addition to his role with the conference, Lauder is also serving as president of the Jewish National Fund. He took office during a controversy over whether sufficient funds were being sent to the group’s parent office in Israel, Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael, and cleaned house. He hired a new executive director, established a new constitution to make the organization more efficient, and reduced costs (from $30 million to $24 million) and regional offices (from 30 to 21).Many of these changes were painful, he says, but necessary, noting that JNF now is among the most efficiently run of all Jewish organizations. (The group now faces another challenge, ironically from environmentalists, who last week sued JNF, claiming forestation efforts are damaging natural landscapes and ecosystems.)

Lauder asserts that water is the key to Mideast peace, and that Israel will face a catastrophe in only six years unless it addresses more aggressively its serious environmental problems. He said it was “insane” for the Knesset to remove a desalination project from its budget last month in order to balance the budget, and insisted that JNF will lead the way in improving the water situation as well as clean up polluted waters and streams.

The organization intends to promote water conservation and recycling, and to build 100 new reservoirs in the next decade at a cost of $100 million “to save the life of Israel.”Lack Of AccessOne of the criticisms Lauder is sensitive to is that for a national Jewish leader, he has been less than accessible to the press. He acknowledges that he kept a low profile during much of his first year as conference chair, when repeated requests from this newspaper for an interview went unanswered.Not surprisingly, some observers say that Lauder functions primarily as a front man for Malcolm Hoenlein, the indefatigable executive vice chairman of the conference, who is said to share his right-leaning ideology on Israel.

“It’s hard to get access to Lauder,” one leader says. “Everyone knows him and no one knows him. Input is mostly through Malcolm.”But this can be seen as part of a larger and chronic complaint from some members about Hoenlein’s close control of the conference, whose influence is at its peak when Washington-Jerusalem relations are rocky. These days, with Barak and President Clinton in agreement on many key issues, the conference’s role appears somewhat diminished. For his part, Hoenlein describes Lauder as “very smart, with a quick grasp of the issues. People appreciate his knowledge, his humor and his sincerity of commitment.”Hoenlein adds that all conference chairmen have had a wide range of political involvement and contacts. “We wouldn’t want someone who didn’t,” he says. “Is it complicated? Yes, but so far it hasn’t been a problem.”

For his part, Ronald Lauder, the tactful man in the middle, tries to avoid responding to swipes at his style or point of view. Referring obliquely to criticism he has received, the heir to a fortune, high above the fray and in the splendor of his lofty perch, simply smiles and notes that he keeps an inscription in his office that reads, “No good deed goes unpunished.”