Opinion

Lauder’s J’Accuse Against Netanyahu’s Israel Is Also a Mea Culpa

The alarm sounded by the Jewish leader and media magnate in the New York Times is too little and probably too late

Donald Trump shakes hands with Ronald Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress,  after a meeting at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida on December 28, 2016.
DON EMMERT/AFP

Ronald Lauder should be commended for his article in Monday’s New York Times on Israel’s “Self Inflicted Wounds.” It is one thing for the President of the World Jewish Congress to let people know of his distress with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies. It is quite another for him to pen such a blunt J’Accuse on the op-ed pages of the New York Times, for the entire world to see ("Israel's self-inflicted wounds," March 18, 2018).

One shouldn’t underestimate the drama, either. Even if it’s true that the World Jewish Congress would no longer exist without Lauder’s largesse, the organization still commands respect and attention in corridors of power throughout the world. Lauder may not be “King of the Jews,” as his predecessor Edgar Bronfman was dubbed, but he is the closest thing that world Jewry has to a senior statesman who can represent the consensus of the Diaspora as a whole. In the eyes of many Jews, Lauder is “Mr. Establishment.”

Lauder surely realizes that his public rebuke could turn him into a target for the powerful rightwing slander machine that can chop him up and make a lefty traitor out of him in no time.  Whether the ups and downs of Lauder’s personal relationship with Netanyahu played a role in his decision to confront the prime minister, publishing his article took no small amount of courage, especially for a man whose middle name for many decades seemed to be discretion and caution. Even now, Lauder avoids pointing a direct finger at the prime minister's policies, ascribing them to “some Israelis” and “a minority” of ultra-Orthodox, as if Netanyahu is simply an innocent bystander.

Lauder’s article is an expression of the severity of the developing schism between Netanyahu’s Israel and American Jews. The longstanding gaps on the two-state solution turned into a breach when Netanyahu reneged on the Kotel deal in the summer of 2016, and since then the rift has widened in the wake of Netanyahu’s fawning embrace of an American President who makes the overwhelming majority of American Jews nauseous. Lauder may view his friend Trump as “a man of intelligence,” as he recently said, but the millennials that he is worried about view Netanyahu and Trump’s mutual admiration society as final proof that the policies of the Jewish State, as Lauder puts it, “contradict their values.”

But if Lauder is hoping to shock Netanyahu, his coalition or Israeli public opinion into taking stock of the situation and reassessing its destructive policies, he is being hopelessly naive.  His message is too little, and possibly comes too late. Nothing on the horizon can lead one to believe that settlements will stop, the ultra-Orthodox will see the light or Netanyahu will change his ways. Israeli Jews have never been too concerned with the feelings and sentiments of American Jews anyway. In recent years, in the wake of Jewish liberal support for his nemesis Barack Obama, Netanyahu has actively persuaded Israelis that they shouldn’t care less about American Jews.

Lauder himself played a not insignificant role in pushing Israel into the dead end he now foresees; his article should be read not only as an indictment of Netanyahu’s Israel, but as a personal mea culpa as well. For many years, Lauder was Netanyahu’s enabler, spokesperson and close confidante, his partner to all sorts of back room media shenanigans. He served as Netanyahu’s emissary in peace talks and as his discreet diplomat in distant capitals. Lauder and the World Jewish Congress devote time and money to defending Netanyahu, endorsing his policies and tactics and crying out against outside pressure that seeks to get Israel to change its ways. Lauder, lest we forget, introduced Netanyahu to the late Arthur Finkelstein, who successfully ran Netanyahu’s prime ministerial campaign in 1996 and who introduced him to the dark political arts of division and incitement with which he rules today.

“I am conservative and a Republican, and I have supported the Likud party since the 1980s,” Lauder writes, supplying his bona fides together with his signed confession. Since the 1980’s, the Likud in general and Netanyahu in particular have devoted themselves to fending off peace initiatives, often with Lauder’s support, and to entrenching the occupation that Lauder is now alarmed by. They have done so by bartering the religious freedom and pluralism that Lauder and most American Jews now lament, in exchange for blind ultra-Orthodox support for the right-wing’s expansionist agenda.

There are many Israelis who have been warning about the impending demise of the two-state solution and the inevitable estrangement of American Jews, but Lauder chose to look the other way. The fact that in recent years he has come around to realizing that Netanyahu may be squandering the last best chance to make peace with Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinians does not absolve Lauder of the aid and succor he gave Netanyahu to make it possible. Nonetheless, the Book of Proverbs commands us to show mercy to those who confess their sins, even if they do so in a vague, roundabout way.

Lauder must realize by now that the White House is no partner for his kind of cautious approach. The cosmetic empire heir may still have Trump’s ear, but it is Sheldon Adelson who has captured the President’s heart. And in times when both the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of Israel are enthralled by, and beholden to, radical nationalists and religious zealots, even someone like Lauder finds himself standing shoulder to shoulder with dissenters and critics that his former BFF Netanyahu routinely describes as traitors, defeatists and Israel-haters.