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Ending months of speculation, JNF President Ronald S. Lauder announced Thursday that he will seek the presidency of the World Jewish Congress, saying it was time for an organization long plagued by bitter internal feuding and allegations of financial mismanagement to move forward.
"The WJC is more than an election, it is more than its leadership and it is certainly more than a scandal," Lauder said. "Given world events, always remembering our history, it is time to focus on the future and move the World Jewish Congress forward together."
The decision, coming three weeks after the surprise resignation of WJC President Edgar M. Bronfman, will pit Lauder against Mendel Kaplan, chairman of its board of governors, in the June 10 vote. Bronfman has held the post since 1981.
The six-decade-old organization, best known for negotiating Holocaust restitution, has been mired in internal infighting for months.
In his announcement, Lauder referred to the troubles that have threatened to split the WJC, saying that lofty goals and Bronfman's "truly historic achievements" aside, he would not shrink from the "hard truths" at hand.
"The World Jewish Congress has recently been distracted by dispute and scandal... While I intend to fix what is wrong, I also intend to make the WJC what it once was and will be again - one of the leading representative organizations of Jews everywhere," he said.
"The WJC's difficulties over the last few years cannot and should not detract from the truly historic achievements of Edgar Bronfman's presidency... His tireless efforts have been inspirational to future generations," Lauder said.
Pierre Besnainou, the president of the European Jewish Congress, who had threatened to pull out of the WJC if elections were not held this year, is backing Kaplan in the race, as is the head of the WJC's Israel board, MK Shai Hermesh (Kadima).
The election comes at a time when the organization faces what former WJC vice president Isi Leibler called a record-low in donations. "Without new leadership, or a personal infusion of millions of dollars, the organization will not be liquid," said Leibler, who is a Lauder supporter.
According to the group's financial statements, it spent $17 million and took in $9.4m. in 2005.
Leibler said the Canadian Bronfman provided up to 15 percent of the organization's income, while the vast majority comes from American Jews.
"I think that considering what is going on in the organization - with a secretary-general [Stephen E. Herbits] who wants to rule over everything that is going on - any normal person would not want to donate to such an organization," said Tzvi Ramot, a member of the Israel board.
Lauder has served as president of the Jewish National Fund since February 1997; the organization has undergone a major financial overhaul under his leadership.
"Reforming an organization that has seen its share of problems is not new to me. At the JNF, I inherited an organization with a reputation shattered by widely-publicized financial mismanagement. Nine years later, the JNF is universally seen as an example of successful reform and cited as a model for the proper administration of a charitable body," he said.
Among his many other titles, Lauder, a former US ambassador to Austria, is Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, where he lives.
Bronfman's resignation came less than two months after his decision to oust veteran group chairman Israel Singer over allegations of financial improprieties.
The next WJC president will serve the remainder of Bronfman's term, which ends in January 2009, the organization has said.