Putin Ally Is Frontrunner to Head European Jewish Congress

Amiram Barkat
Amiram Barkat

Russian tycoon Vyacheslav Moshe Kantor, an associate of President Vladimir Putin, is the leading candidate for president of the European Jewish Congress in next week's elections in Brussels.

Kantor is supported by a number of European Jewish community leaders, but a few have warned against electing a close ally of the Russian government.

Some Israeli officials fear that as president of the umbrella organization, Kantor could undermine Israel's efforts to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

Kantor, 54, says that his close links to the Kremlin are good for the Jews and might prove helpful on the Iranian issue. He compared his standing with the Kremlin to Joseph's relationship to Pharaoh and that of King Ahasuerus to Queen Esther.

"Joseph's appointment in Egypt was good for the Jews. The Jews of Persia were saved thanks to Esther's influence with the king. When a very powerful emperor is elected by the majority of the people, we must cooperate with him," he told Haaretz in an interview this week.

Kantor is running against current EJC president Pierre Besnainou, 52, a Frenchman of Tunisian origin who built his fortune on a successful Internet business.

Kantor, who was born in Russia and lives in Switzerland, became rich after he bought a fertilizer company from the government. During his activity at the fertilizer firm, Kantor fell out with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian oligarch who has since been jailed for fraud and tax evasion after his participation in politics.

Kantor and Besnainou could not be more different in character and worldview. Besnainou is a Zionist who invests large amounts of money to promote immigration to Israel. Kantor immigrated to Israel in 1992, though less due to ideology, and still keeps a house here. He is an art collector specializing in avant-garde Jewish Russian artists.

Besnainou says immigration is the answer to assimilation and anti-Semitism in Europe, while Kantor believes that Jewish artists' work can be a way to attract young European Jews to Jewish culture and keep them from assimilating.

"The Iranian issue was central for Besnainou, and he brought it up in every meeting with senior EU officials," an Israeli official told Haaretz. "But Kantor is a mystery to us. The only thing clear is that the Kremlin's agenda has a central role for him."

An adviser to outgoing president Moshe Katsav, however, said he sees no difference between the two candidates' agendas on Israel.

Ariel Muzicant, president of the Austrian Jewish Community, fears that Kantor will turn the European Jewish Congress into a body dealing with culture and education.

"The EJC has a very important role in the struggle against Iran. We are not Israel's ambassadors, but we can pressure our governments and explain the danger," Muzicant said. "Kantor has no European government of his own. He is seen as a Russian, and the relations between Russia and the EU are not too close. The EJC is first and foremost a political body, but what interests Kantor is education, culture, Kristallnacht and commemorating the Holocaust."

Kantor said that last month he initiated the International Conference on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe, with Russian and Western experts. Putin has given the conference his blessing.

Israeli officials said the Russians, most of whom object to using military force against Iran and support a nuclear-free Middle East, set the tone at the conference.

When Kantor was asked by Haaretz whether he supports military action against Iran if all other means fail, he said: "My personal opinion doesn't matter. I held the conference because I was asked to set up a coalition with the Russians against Iran and succeeded," Kantor said.

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