The billionaire Russian tycoon Moshe Kantor was elected president of the Paris-based European Jewish Congress on Tuesday, despite concerns over his close ties to the Kremlin. Kantor, 53, defeated the incumbent president Pierre Besnainou by a vote of 55-30, according to official election results.
Analysis: Vote highlights shift in power to Eastern European Jews
"This is a critical period for European Jewry and I am honored to have been elected to this position of immense responsibility," Kantor said. "I am a great believer in European Jewry and look forward to working together with a highly capable team... to make the European Jewish Congress a dominant force in protecting and nurturing Jewish life in Europe, and to offer our strong support for the State of Israel."
Foreign Ministry officials had voiced concern that as head of the umbrella organization representing European Jewry, Kantor's close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin could undermine Israel's efforts to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Kantor has said his close links to the Kremlin are good for the Jews and might prove helpful in dealing with the Iranian issue.
"I will never compromise with the security of Jews in Europe and with the security of Israel," he declared.
Eighty-seven delegates from 40 European Jewish communities participated in the secret ballot, which took place Tuesday at a Brussels hotel. There were two abstentions in the vote.
The Moscow-born Kantor serves as president of the Russian Jewish Congress, and carries joint Russian and Israeli citizenship.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, he made his fortune by buying a fertilizer company from the government.
An avid art collector, Kantor is seen as infusing cultural programs into the heretofore strictly political organization.
He and his family divide their time between Israel and Geneva.
The Tunisian-born Besnainou, who spared with the former president of the World Jewish Congress Edgar M. Bronfman over his sudden dismissal of veteran group leader Israel Singer and opposed Bronfman's intention to appoint his son Matthew as successor, is considered to have lost ground in his race for backing the losing candidate in the WJC race, Mendel Kaplan.
"I am delighted that Moshe Kantor has been chosen to lead the EJC during the challenging years ahead," said newly elected WJC President Ronald S. Lauder. "His broad vision for a stronger Jewish Europe, together with his impressive programs and events on behalf of European Jewry, are a strong platform for success in enhancing Jewish standing in Europe," he said.
The European Jewish Congress which was established two decades ago as the umbrella organization of European Jewry is primarily funded by the New York- based World Jewish Congress.
Kantor will take office immediately, and serve as president of the EJC for a two-year term until 2009.
Flo Kaufmann, vice president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, was elected as the EJC's chairman of the Board of Governors.
Kaufmann was supported and endorsed by Kantor.