My opponent is tainted by Putin links, says Besnainou

Russian billionaire challenges French incumbent for leadership OF the European Jewish Congress.

pierre besnainou 88 (photo credit: )
pierre besnainou 88
(photo credit: )
The president of the European Jewish Congress, Pierre Besnainou, said last week that his competitor in the race for another term, Russian Jewish Congress President Moshe Kantor, is sullied by his close ties to the Kremlin. "What kind of legitimacy will someone who says nothing when [Russian President Vladamir] Putin meets Hamas and Hizbullah leaders in Moscow have when he asks the EU to sanction these organizations," Besnainou said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. Besnainou, 52, faces off against Kantor, 53, in Tuesday's election for EJC president in what is expected to be a tight race. Besnainou, who is completing a two-year term as head of the EJC, said this week's election was not just between two men, but between "two different approaches" to the organization's strategy in the years to come. "Can we imagine a president of the EJC negotiating with the EU on the issue of Hamas and Hizbullah - or on the Iranian issue - and at the same time not making any comment when Putin receives Hamas in Russia," he asked. "This is not a question of, 'Is Pierre nice or is Pierre not nice?'" Besnainou said. Foreign Ministry officials have also voiced concern that Kantor's close ties to Putin could undermine efforts to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Besnainou said that during his two years as president he has worked hard to press Israel's case in European parliaments on political issues ranging from the Hamas take over of the Palestinian Legislative Council to prosecuting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in The Hague over his repeated calls for Israel's destruction, the Second Lebanon War, and dealing with rising anti-Semitism in Europe. "I am fighting every day with European parliaments when they want to host Hamas or transfer money to Hamas," he said. "There cannot be two standards on policy." Besnainou said that the EJC - which was set up two decades ago as the umbrella organization of European Jewry and is primarily funded by the New York-based World Jewish Congress - had grown in political strength and stature in Europe since he was elected in 2005, in what was the first election for the organization's head. He warned against plans by Kantor to mix educational and cultural programs in a political organization. The Tunisian-born Besnainou, who sparred with the then-WJC president Edgar M. Bronfman over his dismissal of veteran group leader Israel Singer and opposed Bronfman's intention to appoint his son Matthew as his successor is thought to have fallen behind in the EJC race for backing the losing candidate in the race to replace Bronfman at the WJC, Mendel Kaplan. Besnainou, who was at the receiving end of an ethnic slur by a top WJC official, whose resignation is currently pending, said that he remained optimistic that his candidacy has not been hurt by his "principled" decision to back Kaplan over Ronald S. Lauder, who won the WJC vote. Eighty-nine delegates from 40 European Jewish communities will participate in Tuesday's secret ballot at a Brussels hotel. "The vote is actually much more democratic when it is a secret ballot," Besnainou said, in the only indication of his concern over outside pressure being exerted on voters. Besnainou began his career in importing Asian consumer goods three decades ago, and went on to build his fortune on a successful Internet business that he founded in 1998. Since 2001, the father of three has devoted himself entirely to the Jewish community, and invests large amounts of time and money in promoting immigration to Israel, where one of his children lives. He said that the problems of Jews were much the same throughout the Diaspora: assimilation and education, which he said could be addressed by investing in Jewish schools and by promoting aliya, both important for Israel and for Jews abroad. Besnainou is often abroad; last month he spent only four nights at his Paris home. He is frequently in Israel, hobnobbing with Israeli officials. He said his family says he works too hard for the EJC. "The day I will not enjoy it anymore, I will stop immediately," he said. "But it is very exciting - you meet wonderful people - and the feeling I have is that I am bringing something to Israel and to the Jewish people."