International businessman Ronald Lauder told American Jewish leaders unequivocally last week that he had never given material support — directly or indirectly — to the political campaigns of Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu.
The assurance, coming in the wake of a Jewish Week story that renewed questions about such ties, abruptly aborted a brewing movement to postpone voting Lauder in to lead organized Jewry’s most prominent umbrella group.
As a result, Lauder won approval on Feb. 3 to become chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in June with only four abstentions and none opposed.
The vote on Lauder was thrown into question late last month when a joint investigation by The Jewish Week and the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz posed the possibility that the conference’s nominating committee had not questioned the billionaire philanthropist thoroughly enough on his financial ties to Netanyahu.
Last week, at a second nominating committee meeting held as a result of the article, Lauder addressed the points raised in the story one by one, participants said. The two-hour meeting, in which some members participated by phone, took place the night before the full Presidents Conference meeting scheduled to vote on Lauder.
“We specifically went down the list in your story,” Leon Levy, the committee chairman, told The Jewish Week. “As long as there was any doubt that he could have done something illegal, or something that could be frowned upon, we wanted it in the open.”
Said another source, speaking on condition of anonymity: “He categorically denied every single item, point by point. We asked him, did you directly, or indirectly, make these contributions? And he said no. It was the newspaper’s word against his; so where do you go on it?”
According to participants in the original interview, the committee, aware of widespread reports that Lauder had backed Netanyahu financially in Israeli election campaigns, asked him simply if he had done so. Lauder, according to these sources, replied emphatically that he had not.
But the Jewish Week-Haaretz article, noting that direct donations by foreigners to Israeli campaigns were illegal, reported on several ways in which Lauder was said to have routed money or material support indirectly to Netanyahu.
The article, for example, cited an unnamed source “familiar with the Jewish National Fund president’s activities” who stated that Lauder had on multiple occasions transported Netanyahu’s secretive American campaign consultant, Arthur Finkelstein, to Israel on his private plane to meet with his client.
But Lauder stated unequivocally at the second meeting that this was not true. Lauder, who has been close to Finkelstein since the consultant ran Lauder’s unsuccessful 1989 campaign for New York mayor, said that before coming to the meeting he had checked the records on his private plane and those of the company whose planes he leased.
According to participants, Lauder also described a 1994 donation he made to a U.S. charity run by Likud’s officially registered foreign agent and fund-raiser in the United States as a legitimate charitable contribution.
A Lauder spokeswoman referred questions put to him about the meeting to conference executive vice president Malcolm Hoenlein.
“They went through all the specifics, and he replied to the committee’s satisfaction,” Hoenlein told The Jewish Week.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of Reform Judaism’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, had been expected to propose postponing the vote on behalf of a coalition of some 15 organizations within the conference.
Many were dovish groups opposed to Lauder because of his undisputed close personal ties and political sympathy with the more hard-line Netanyahu. But Rabbi Yoffie stressed his own concern was solely with the question of whether a proposed leader of the avowedly nonpartisan Presidents Conference was involved financially in a partisan domestic Israeli political campaign.
Rabbi Yoffie said Tuesday that he learned only upon arriving at the full meeting about the nominating committee parley of the night before. In particular, said Rabbi Yoffie, he learned only then that his movement’s representative on the committee had voted to accept Lauder’s assertions and reapprove his nomination.
“The Reform and Conservative representatives on the committee were convinced that [the points raised in The Jewish Week story] were not sufficient,” said Rabbi Yoffie, “and I must accept their judgment on that.”
Judy Silverman, president of Women of Reform Judaism and the Reform movement’s representative on the nominating committee, declined to comment on what took place in the meeting.
But according to sources with knowledge of the meeting, there was significant pressure on the skeptical minority to vote with the majority favoring Lauder.
“There were only two on one side” against going ahead with the vote on Lauder on the seven-person committee, said one source. “If it was three against four, it would have been different.
“The pressure was really on,” said another source.
This source described committee chairman Levy as being adamant that Lauder be approved, saying that a failure to do so would be a stain on his leadership of the committee. Another source described Levy as simply “anxious” to have the previous vote reaffirmed, but added “ ‘adamant’ would denote a degree of insistence I don’t think is accurate.”
Levy said that after the meeting, he was congratulated for his balanced handling of the meeting.
“I left the whole process feeling good that I was able to achieve our result without in any way being prejudiced,” he said.
Meanwhile, as more information emerges about Finkelstein’s rates, questions continue to deepen over just who has been paying for his work for Netanyahu.
According to a report in the on-line political magazine “Gridlock & Load,” Federal Elections Commission records show that Finkelstein received $221,900 in 1995 from then-Sen. Alfonse D’Amato’s campaign committee for consulting services. D’Amato’s committee paid him another $61,200 that year for polling duties.
In 1994, New Yorkers for D’Amato paid Finkelstein $140,000 for his consulting, the webzine reported.
But according to a senior Likud Party official with access to the party’s finance records, those records indicate that Likud’s retainer fee for Finkelstein was only $4,000 per month in 1998 — an off-election year in Israel, as were 1994 and 1995 for D’Amato. The fee would also presumably have had to cover Finkelstein’s air travel to Israel and hotel lodging there.
“I assume that for every dollar the Likud give him, he gets more from others,” the senior Likud official said.