Analysis

Ronald Lauder Cozies Up to Trump as His Estranged Ally Netanyahu Watches and Worries

Had Netanyahu ever dreamed that Lauder – Trump's friend for half a century – would become one of his trusted voices on Middle East policy, he would never have allowed the tycoon to drift so far away

U.S President-elect Donald Trump stands next to Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress,  after a meeting at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, December 28, 2016.
DON EMMERT/AFP

It’s been a big week for Ronald Lauder. Not only did World Jewish Congress, which he heads, make international headlines thanks to the U.S. President Donald Trump’s video message at its plenary assembly’s opening dinner, but the president’s speech also stressed the personal connection between the two men.

“I want to thank Ronald Lauder, not only for his many years of friendship – and he truly has been my good friend, he even predicted early that I was going to win the presidency – but also for his leadership of this organization. He has done a fantastic job,” Trump said.

Trump wasn’t the only big name paying homage to Lauder and his organization during the two-day WJC plenary assembly, where he was elected president of the organization for the third time. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres also spoke at the Sunday night dinner, on Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley paid a visit, and in a final surprise, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin made an appearance in a video message.

One face and voice, however, was conspicuously absent. There was no video message from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – there was not even a written greeting to be read aloud.

The contrast of Trump’s embrace and Netanyahu’s absence spoke volumes. Lauder and Netanyahu’s is the story of a long, once-close and mutually beneficial relationship gone sour – largely due to Netanyahu, who pushed his longtime supporter away. The current chapter appears to be one in which Lauder has the ability to unsettle Netanyahu, once his close friend and key supporter, with his ability to whisper in Trump’s ear. This is increasingly problematic for the prime minister and his supporters in the U.S. since Lauder, pro-Israel Republican he may be, makes no secret of the fact that he believes a negotiated two-state solution should move forward.

Jacob Kornbluh, a reporter for Jewish Insider who is well connected in Trump’s Jewish circles, reported Tuesday that multiple sources around the president have told him that Lauder has “convinced Trump that ‘the ultimate deal’ between Israelis and Palestinians is achievable, a deal that has eluded each of Trump’s immediate predecessors. Lauder is said to have told the president that the Palestinians are ‘desperate’ for a deal and that ‘Israel is the problem.’“ He added that there are those in Trump’s circles who – unhappily, it seems – call Lauder “the Palestinians' man in D.C.” It has also been noted that Lauder met with Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi in Cairo last month, paving the way for the Egyptian leader’s warm reception in Trump's White House.

Trump likes people familiar to him and Lauder is a face he has known for 50 years. The two men are wealthy New Yorkers of the same generation – both attended the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Lauder, however, enjoyed easier entree into Manhattan high society as heir to his mother Estée Lauder’s cosmetics empire. The elder Lauder was helpful to young Trump while he was building his fortune and his brand, even naming a fragrance after him.

Later, Ronald Lauder and Trump bonded politically over their support for and admiration of Ronald Reagan. In the 1980s the two men were New York tabloid fixtures: Trump for his audacious real estate and personal escapades, and Lauder for his stint as Reagan’s ambassador to Austria and his subsequent unsuccessful attempt to break into local politics by running for mayor in 1989. (He lost the Republican primary to Rudy Giuliani despite spending record sums on his campaign.)

Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu with American billionaire Ron Lauder, 1997.
Reuters

Back then, Lauder would have been a surer bet for wanting to be president someday. But he seems to have realized that electoral politics were not his forte and has instead parlayed his wealth and philanthropic activity into political clout, focusing on rebuilding Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe and championing the recovery of art stolen by the Nazis.

Largely through his support of and connection to Netanyahu, he entered the world of Middle East diplomacy. Like other Netanyahu backers, Lauder became heavily involved in Israeli media, investing in Channel 10. It was an ill-fated adventure, however. Not only did he lose a reported $130 million over the 11 years of his ownership. His investment sowed the seeds of his falling-out with Netanyahu when he and his wife Sara became upset over Lauder’s failure to stop the station from airing a series of reports on alleged financial misconduct by the couple.

Soon after, with nothing to lose, Lauder moved the split from the personal realm into the political one. He publicly took Netanyahu to task over to the peace process, criticizing the prime minister’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state prior to negotiations and saying that Israel must be seen as being willing to negotiate without preconditions.

The relationship has been distant and icy ever since. It surely didn’t help that when Lauder came to Israel for Shimon Peres’ funeral, he was called to police headquarters to answer questions that turned out to be related to Netanyahu’s “gifts” case involving Arnon Milchan. While at first rumors flew that Lauder was involved in the case, it seems his testimony was merely needed to establish Netanyahu’s patterns of behavior when it came to receiving gifts and favors from wealthy patrons.

True, Netanyahu still has Sheldon Adelson. But while Adelson is wealthier and may have gotten a front-row seat to Trump’s inauguration by underwriting it, the casino billionaire’s ties to Trump are far less grounded in history and loyalty than Lauder’s, and according to recent reports, increasingly shaky.

Lauder’s, in contrast, are rock solid. He was the one who publicly defended Trump in December, standing by him in his rocky transition period. When he was criticized for his ties to Steve Bannon, Lauder took to the airwaves to declare that Trump “doesn’t have an anti-Semitic bone” in his body. A month later, when even Trump supporters were slamming him over not mentioning Jews in his International Holocaust Remembrance Day statement, Lauder was nearly alone in his defense of the president, saying the White House statement “appropriately commemorates the suffering and the heroism that mark that dark chapter in modern history.”

When Trump and Netanyahu met in February, Lauder hailed their relationship as the possible “recipe for the end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Now it seems he is lobbying Trump to make it happen, which can’t be good news for Netanyahu, who faces substantial political pressure on his right flank.

If Netanyahu had ever dreamed that Donald Trump could win the White House, and Lauder – Trump’s friend for half a century – would be one of his trusted voices on Middle East policy, he would never have allowed the cosmetics tycoon to drift so far for so long.