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Kingmaker Ronald Lauder turns on former protégé Netanyahu

  • JTARonaldLauder
It’s gotta hurt when the guy who used to fund your political career writes two op-eds criticising you in The New York Times.
by BEN SALES | Aug 16, 2018

Benjamin Netanyahu would know – that’s what’s happening to him right now.

On Monday, Netanyahu was the target of a scathing column by Ronald Lauder, the cosmetics heir who heads the World Jewish Congress. Lauder lamented Israel’s recent Nation-State law, which Netanyahu defends as a safeguard of Israel’s Jewish character, but critics see it as a slap in the face for the country’s minorities. Lauder wrote that Israel’s turn to the right is betraying its – and the Jewish people’s – commitment to democratic, humanistic ideals.

“The Jews of the new era have fused our national pride and religious affiliation with a dedication to human progress, worldly culture, and morality,” Lauder wrote. “Conservatives and liberals, we all believe in a just Zionism and a pluralistic Judaism that respects every human being. So, when members of Israel’s current government unintentionally undermine the covenant between Judaism and enlightenment, they crush the core of contemporary Jewish existence.”

It’s the second time Lauder has taken to the pages of The Times to lambaste Netanyahu’s agenda. In March, he lamented the demise of the two-state solution under Netanyahu, and the power of Orthodox parties in Israel, warning that “[b]y submitting to the pressures exerted by a minority in Israel, the Jewish state is alienating a large segment of the Jewish people”.

Lauder may fear Netanyahu’s policies now. But without Lauder’s support, it’s possible Netanyahu would not have been Prime Minister at all.

In 1996, the first time Netanyahu ran for the office, he was a major underdog with a 30-point deficit to incumbent Shimon Peres. Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s Prime Minister, had been assassinated months earlier by a Jewish extremist opposed to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Beyond the national sympathy for Rabin’s Labor Party, some saw Netanyahu as complicit in the incitement that led to the assassination. A month beforehand, he participated in an anti-Rabin rally where some people waved photos of Rabin in an SS uniform, and chanted that he was a traitor. It was Peres’ election to lose.

Enter Lauder, a Netanyahu ally since the man nicknamed Bibi was Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in the 1980s. Lauder reportedly was a major donor to Netanyahu’s 1996 run. More crucial, he brought Republican campaign strategist Arthur Finkelstein to work on the campaign.

Finkelstein came up with the slogan “Peres will divide Jerusalem” in peace negotiations – and it worked. A stark attack ad, complete with a black screen, red text and ominous narration, warned that Peres had failed, while a Netanyahu victory would mean a “secure peace”. A string of suicide bombings in the weeks before the election damaged the public’s faith in Peres, and Netanyahu won in a shocking upset, beating Peres by 1%.

Lauder remained in Netanyahu’s corner for more than a decade, at one point even offering to buy every unsold copy of one of Netanyahu’s books.

So why the falling-out? In 2011, Israel’s Channel 10 aired an unflattering investigation into Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, accusing her of an inappropriately extravagant lifestyle. Lauder has a partial stake in the channel, but refused to pressure Channel 10 to drop the segment.

In the meantime, Bibi got a new benefactor: Sheldon Adelson. In 2007, the casino mogul and Republican mega-donor threw his heft behind Netanyahu. Adelson funds Israel Hayom, a free daily newspaper that supports the Prime Minister. Adelson also donated to President Donald Trump’s campaign, helping bridge the two leaders.

Since Trump took office, Lauder reportedly has tried to use his rapport with Trump, Netanyahu, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to restart peace talks. But the effort so far has gone nowhere.

So now, Lauder has taken twice to the op-ed pages of The New York Times, slamming the man he once helped bring to power.

“Israel is a miracle,” Lauder wrote on Monday. “The Jews of the diaspora look up to Israel, admire its astonishing achievements, and view it as their second home. However, today some wonder if the nation they cherish is losing its way.”

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