Sunday, May 14, 2017. It is Mother’s Day, and an old man is very slowly walking North on Madison Avenue. Roughly a block behind him a Maybach Mercedes limousine is following in equidistance and close to the curb. Appearing sad and lonely on Mother’s Day, and not even looking at the storefronts he is passing, the man seems to get his daily exercise, closely watched by his driver.
He is Ronald Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress, once Assistant Secretary of Defense, U.S. ambassador to Austria under President Ronald Reagan, failed candidate for Mayor of New York City (losing to Rudi Giuliani in the Republican primary), philanthropist, art collector and founder of the Neue Museum on 86th Street and Fifth Avenue. Scion of the Lauder clan and Chairman Emeritus of Estée Lauder Companies, and, because he has known President Donald Trump for decades, he, currently, plays an outsized role in U.S. foreign policy that nobody knows about.
President Trump is known to be a good listener. On complicated subjects (and practically every issue reaching the President of the U.S. is highly complex since easier to resolve matters are handled at lower administrative levels), he also likes receiving diverse opinions. But he is also known to be easily swayed by the last opinion he hears. On February 15 of this year (Valentine’s Day) President Donald Trump welcomed Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu to the White House for their first face-to face-meeting and, as it turns out, and unreported by the media, Ronald Lauder played a very important role in that meeting.
On the surface, and as the usually divided mass media in this case unanimously reported, the meeting went exceedingly well; but Israeli sources tell a different story: Shortly before arriving at the White House, the Israeli delegation learned that Ronald Lauder succeeded in seeing the President in the Oval Office just before Netanyahu’s arrival at the White House. This immediately raised concerns because a, once very close political and personal relationship between Lauder and Netanyahu, had crumbled, as Netanyahu, increasingly, had realigned with another U.S. billionaire, Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas casino magnate. Initially a vocal supporter of the conservative Likud party in Israel, Lauder developed strong ties to Benjamin Netanyahu. In 1990, during Netanyahu’s first term as prime Minister, he even served as secret go-between in negotiations with Hafez-al- Assad, then the President of Syria.
After failing in his attempts to get elected Mayor of New York City, Lauder initiated a new business career, separate from the Lauder cosmetic empire by investing in real estate and media properties mostly in former Communist countries, like Hungary (where his family came from), Romania and Poland but he also made a major investment in Channel 10, one of two licensed commercial television channels in Israel at the time.
A 2015 report by Amir Teig in Israel’s strongly left-leaning Haaretz newspaper suggested that Lauder abandoned that investment 11 years later, losing some $130 million. Concomitantly, according to the same article, his business empire in Eastern Europe crumbled, “leading to his distancing from circles of power and seriously damaging his statesmanlike image.” Teig also noted that “when Netanyahu and Lauder were on good terms, the broadcaster (Channel 10) received what it wanted; and when Lauder and Netanyahu had a falling out – then the Prime Minister made things as difficult as he could for the station.”
The cooling relationship between Netanyahu and Lauder was replaced by an increasingly close personal and political relationship between Netanyahu and Adelson, who made major media investments in Israel, and whose media properties aggressively supported Netanyahu (and do so still today). Lauder, according to Teig, never hesitated to use his political standing in the Jewish community as President of the World Jewish Congress to enhance his own private business interests (as his personal conflict with the Hungarian Prime Minister Urban over one of his investments in Hungary well demonstrated, not always to the advantage of the world’s Jewish communities). Using his pulpit as president of World Jewish Congress, Lauder, after his falling out with Netanyahu, also did not hesitate to publically criticize the Israeli Prime Minister on political matters pertaining to the State of Israel. Their falling out became personal.
This explains concern by members of the Israeli delegation when they found out that Lauder had arranged a meeting with President Trump, and had left the Oval Office literally only minutes before Netanyahu’s arrival. Their concerns were confirmed, when the Israeli delegation learned from White House sources that Lauder badmouthed the Israeli Prime Minister and “had warned Trump from trusting Netanyahu,” had accused Netanyahu (and not, as one would have expected, Palestinian President Abbas) “of being responsible for the break down in peace talks with the Palestinians,” of “ subverting the idea of a two-state solution,” and had “strongly recommended against moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem,” as Trump had promised in his election campaign as one of his first steps after being elected President.
Though the Trump – Netanyahu meeting was still remarkably friendly in comparison to the chilly, at times almost hostile meetings between Netanyahu and President Obama, it dampened Israeli expectations, which, up to that point, had been, as Israeli sources noted, “likely greatly exaggerated.” One of the reasons why they had been exaggerated was a visit to the White House a few days earlier by Sheldon Adelson, in which Adelson had given Trump exactly the opposite assessment of Netanyahu and his policies.
The announced delay in moving the embassy to Jerusalem and some other signals the Trump administration has been giving to the Israeli government during the Washington visit, and since (like a warning about settlement expansions), appear to suggest that Lauder’s influence on Trump appears to have outweighed Sheldon Adelson’s, even though the latter had been the biggest single donor to Trump’s campaign and inauguration.
This is, of course, on one hand good news because it suggests that Trump is not influenced by donations to his campaign. On the other hand, it, however, is worrisome, – not only because it questions how real Trump’s pre-election commitment to Israel really is but also, because it, once again, reinforces the message that to be the last to whisper into Trump’s ears before a decision is made, appears to be very important.
The deepest cause of concern lies, however, in that Lauder’s obvious history of self-aggrandizement and abuse of the position as President of the World Jewish Congress for personal gains, now points toward the possibility that he, in his personal animus toward Netanyahu, may endanger the State of Israel. If a Jewish leader from the political left would have done what Lauder did, he, rightly, would be accused of treason toward the State of Israel. That an alleged Likudnik, like Lauder, would do this is, however, simply, beyond comprehension.
Time to resign as President of the World Jewish Congress, Mr. Lauder! And for President Trump, this is one more example that people you trust must, first, be very carefully vetted.