WASHINGTON (JTA) — Ronald Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, said Israeli government policies threaten the country’s democratic character and even its existence.
Openly breaking with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an op-ed published Monday in The New York Times, Lauder also pressed hard for a two-state solution — a significant stance because the cosmetics billionaire has the ear of President Donald Trump, who is about to unveil a Middle East peace proposal.
Trump has said he is agnostic about whether two states is the preferred outcome for Israel and the Palestinians, and Netanyahu over the past year has retreated from endorsing two states.
Much of the column was an excoriation of Netanyahu’s policy in terms more commonly heard on the pro-Israel left, including the argument that Israel cannot be both a Jewish state and a democracy unless it relinquises control of the lives of the Palestinians living in the West Bank.
“The Jewish democratic state faces two grave threats that I believe could endanger its very existence,” Lauder wrote.
“The first threat is the possible demise of the two-state solution. I am conservative and a Republican, and I have supported the Likud party since the 1980s. But the reality is that 13 million people live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. And almost half of them are Palestinian.”
Lauder alluded to his closeness to Trump and to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and implicitly chided Netanyahu for his repeated claims that the only thing obstructing peace is Palestinian recalcitrance.
“President Trump and his team are wholly committed to Middle East peace,” Lauder said. “Contrary to news media reports, senior Palestinian leaders are, they have personally told me, ready to begin direct negotiations immediately.”
Lauder also objected to the control that the Orthodox in Israel have over a range of issues including marriage and organized prayer at the Western Wall.
“By submitting to the pressures exerted by a minority in Israel, the Jewish state is alienating a large segment of the Jewish people,” he said. “The crisis is especially pronounced among the younger generation, which is predominantly secular.”
Lauder was close to Netanyahu for decades, backing him during his first run for prime minister in 1996 and defending him in Diaspora arenas. Over the past several years, there have been signs that they have grown apart, stemming from Lauder’s refusal seven years ago to block a report unflattering to Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, that was broadcast on an Israeli television channel in which Lauder had a part ownership stake.
Lauder, chairman emeritus of the Estée Lauder cosmetic empire and president of the World Jewish Congress since 2007, has also been one of the most consistent voices of support for Trump in the Jewish community. The two have been friends since the 1980s, when they both emerged as influential moguls on the New York political and social scenes.
In 2001, Lauder, then chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the foreign policy umbrella for the Jewish community, drew sharp criticism from the body’s constituent groups when he appeared at a rally in Israel against the then government’s proposed peace plan and its concessions to the Palestinians.