WJC’s Lauder to ‘Post’: Netanyahu is a great leader

Organization president: “One of the things I’ve learned is that the future of Israel depends on the Negev.”

Ronald Lauder (photo credit: Associated Press)
Ronald Lauder
(photo credit: Associated Press)
The Palestinians want peace as much as Israel and if anyone can accomplish a peace agreement, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is the one to do it, World Jewish Congress president Ron Lauder said in an exclusive interview with The Jerusalem Post ahead of the organization’s annual gathering in Jerusalem.
“Binyamin Netanyahu is a great leader and if something can be accomplished, he will accomplish it,” Lauder said, adding that the Palestinians he had spoken to “want peace as much as Israel.”
Lauder said that the well-being of Jews and Jewish communities throughout the world depended on a positive outcome from the negotiations commencing in Washington this week, but added that in his view it would have been preferable for the talks to have been held in private without the watchful eye of the world community.
“A peace agreement in the Middle East would mean more stability for Jews everywhere and it would probably lead to a reduction in the manifestations of anti- Semitism and incitement, and hopefully lead to an end to the demonization of Israel and the questioning of its right to exist,” Lauder said.
Lauder, who has extensive contacts in the Arab world and acted as a mediator with Syria during Netanyahu’s previous term as prime minister, declined to comment on reports that he had met on Netanyahu’s behalf with King Abdullah of Jordan recently.
Asked whether he felt there was any danger to Israel’s relations with the Hashemite kingdom in the event that the current round of talks failed to yield any progress, Lauder replied: “The fact is that all the Arab countries, particularly those bordering Israel, are under enormous pressure from their peoples because of the propaganda put out by Iran, by Hizbullah, by Hamas and the fact is that the media has very, very much pushed the peoples’ anger up higher and higher.”
Lauder added that he felt the format of the new round of talks put things “under a very difficult light.”
“Even though I do not believe that the outcome of Oslo was correct, I do believe that the way to have success is to have direct talks, but not in public,” Lauder said.
“It should be talks where people can agree or disagree without the world looking on. I believe that if there are direct talks, not with Washington or the world looking on, then we could have an agreement.”
Asked whether he had expressed that point of view to the US government, Lauder said, “they know my point of view.”
Earlier this year, Lauder wrote an open letter to the Obama administration about the “deteriorating state of relations with Israel.”
When discussing the letter’s effect, Lauder focused on the unity he felt it represented.
“One of the most important aspects of the letter was that the entire World Jewish Congress was behind it. And it was the first time, I think, that we all came together as one point of view.
“It was very interesting because this letter really laid out what I think many people in the world, particularly in the Jewish world felt. It had an electrifying effect, not only for many Jewish people who were afraid to talk out, but I do believe it had an effect on the Obama administration because after that, they - very much, I think - changed direction. I think they realized that they may have gone too much in the direction of unequal balance. And I think it did have that positive effect.”
After being asked about the changes made by the Obama administration and his view on the settlements, Lauder offered a measured response.
“First of all, it wasn’t about settlements; it was more importantly about borders and the fact that Israel has to have defensible borders. It was about Jerusalem, which is the capital of the Jewish people... and there were various other issues that it touched.
“Time will tell but I believe there has been a change... recently when Netanyahu was reinvited to the White House, it was an entirely different atmosphere [as compared] to the past.
“I don’t know if the letter had the effect or not, but I know there was a dramatic change in the administration’s attitude toward him and for that matter toward Israel.
“Also, what was interesting is that this letter very much unified the Jewish world. In every country in the world, and everywhere I’ve been people were talking about the letter and what it meant. Many countries used the letter and translated it into their own languages and sent it out.”
Returning to the annual gathering of the WJC, Lauder said, “We are coming to Jerusalem not as 82 different communities but as one community and I think that it’s fascinating that, from left to right, we stand united behind Israel and with Israel.”
He continued, “I think that never since the founding of the WJC in 1936 has there been a more critical time for the WJC to be active. There is a whole question of delegitimization of Israel coming from many different areas. It is not only a question of explaining, but to sit down and take action.
It is a critical time and from what I can see from my travels, the WJC has had an amazing effect.”
Asked how the WJC differed from other Jewish organizations, Lauder said it was the only organization that was global in its scope and worked with the Diaspora for the benefit of Israel.
“I have focused on making the WJC a global Jewish enterprise merging the Diaspora and Israel,” Lauder said. “A key part of what we are doing is striking a balance between the Diaspora and Israel, what’s right for the Jewish world is right for Israel and vice versa.”
Lauder said he had agreed to take over the WJC in 2007 from Edgar Bronfman out of a belief that he was “the only person out there that could do it not only because of my international contacts, but my belief, my heart, my ability and frankly my ability to finance it.”
Lauder was not always actively involved in Jewish affairs. His “awakening” came when he served as the United States ambassador to Austria during the Ronald Reagan administration.
“I thank very, very much [Austrian] president Kurt Waldheim for that awakening,” Lauder said.
“Before I came to Austria, I was a three-day-a-year Jew. I was a very typical New York assimilated Jew and frankly for the first time in my life, I was attacked not as an American but as an American Jew.
“When I made the decision not to go to Kurt Waldheim’s swearing-in ceremony because I felt he was somebody who had lied about his past, I made a political statement. I took a great deal of criticism for that, but in the end, people knew I was right. The more [the Austrian media] attacked, the stronger I got as far as being Jewish.
“When Waldheim was running for president, I remember being in Stephansplatz and listening to him speak and he said, ‘if I’m guilty, then your fathers are guilty, and you’re guilty and your uncles and cousins are guilty, because I did nothing different than they did.’ “I came forth and said, ‘Hey, that’s not correct. Austria was not the first victim; it was an accomplice,’ and they said ‘American Jew’.”
Lauder, who together with his brother Leonard inherited the Estee Lauder cosmetics empire, has invested heavily in Israel - including in Channel 10 - but his passion is for developing the Negev.
“One of the things I’ve learned is that the future of Israel depends on the Negev,” Lauder said.
“I’ve watched government after government really and truly not put any effort into the Negev. Why? Because there are no votes there. Also the future of the Negev depends on one word - water. And the fact is that we do have the ability to have water in the Negev.
“Underneath the Negev, deep down, there is a great deal of water and for reasons unbeknown to me, it has not been taken out and used. But the real aspect is that that is the future, and if there was a real effort on behalf of the Negev, you would have a great deal of change going on.”
Lauder said he had spent some time in the Negev a few years ago.
“I spent a month there. I visited several kibbutzim, I slept in trailers, I spoke to settlers and I have great admiration for them. I don’t feel the government has done enough for them.”
Lauder revealed that he had recently completed the purchase of Israeli water technology company Nirosoft, which he said he intended to build into a worldwide company.
While Lauder said that Israel was highly respected in the field of technology, he noted that regulations and bureaucracy had created a global market, and that as a result Israel had lost many talented managers who had gone overseas.
Lauder, who set up the School of Government at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, said it was “very important that the government do everything it can to support business schools that teach students to become real international businesspeople.”
One of the world’s most important art collectors and the co-owner of the Neue Galerie in New York, Lauder replied “we will see” when asked if he would consider bringing his collection - which includes Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch- Bauer” for which he paid $135 million in 2006 - for a visiting exhibition at the newly restored Israel Museum.
“The Israel Museum is one of the great museums in the world and I also believe in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, which I think is a very beautiful museum,” he said.