Flap over WJC president’s letter to Olmert

NEW YORK — The president of the World Jewish Congress has roiled the organization’s branch in Israel by writing to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with a plea to allow Diaspora Jews a voice in any decisions on Jerusalem’s future.

Ronald Lauder in his Jan. 8 letter, on World Jewish Congress (WJC) letterhead, wished Olmert success during U.S. President George W. Bush’s visit to the region and expressed the hope of world Jewry that Israel can attain peace.

Lauder closed the letter urging Olmert that he should take into consideration “the prayers, the hopes and the views of Jews around the world when you discuss the future” of Jerusalem.

“While recognizing Israel’s inherent prerogatives as a sovereign state,” Lauder wrote, “it is inconceivable that any changes in the status of our Holy City will be implemented without giving the Jewish people, as a whole, a voice in the decision.”

Among those complaining about the letter is Shai Hermesh, the chairman of WJC’s Israel branch, which was listed at the top of the letterhead along with WJC’s world headquarters in New York.

Hermesh said the letter was sent without any consultation with the Israel branch and contradicts the WJC’s longstanding policy of keeping out of Israel’s political affairs.

“Ronald Lauder is allowed to print a letter or do whatever he wants, but he should take into consideration that never, never, never in the past did Jews in the Diaspora make decisions for Israel,” Hermesh told JTA in a telephone interview last Tuesday.

“We feel that Jews around the world are our brothers and their support is very important to us, but political decisions should be taken only by the Knesset and no one else, including the Israeli branch of the World Jewish Congress. That is totally unacceptable by us. Decisions should be taken only by the elected government and no one else.”

The flap over Lauder’s letter comes as right-wing and Orthodox groups in America are waging a campaign to keep Israel from sharing or dividing Jerusalem in any future deal with the Palestinians. The effort has reignited the argument over what role, if any, Diaspora Jews should have in deciding Israeli policy.

The goal of the letter, Lauder said, was not to pressure Olmert or Israel into taking a hard-line stand on Jerusalem, but to foster debate on what he sees as the most important decision facing the country.

Lauder added that he would not have taken a similar step regarding other territory up for discussion, including the Gaza Strip, West Bank or Golan Heights.

“The letter simply states that it was important to discuss Jerusalem with the Jews of the Diaspora because we all play a role and Jerusalem is a key factor,” Lauder said.

The WJC was not going to take an official position on Jerusalem, he added.

“I was speaking for both the World Jewish Congress and the Jews of the Diaspora, and saying please listen to the Jews of the Diaspora,” Lauder said.

The spat could signify a clash of personal political differences of WJC officials. Lauder has been a longtime supporter of hawkish factions and leaders in Israel, including Knesset opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Hermesh is a member of Olmert’s Kadima party.

Lauder’s letter comes after Olmert took heat in November for telling reporters that Diaspora Jews should not have a say in what Israel does regarding Jerusalem. Those remarks came as right-wing groups tried to put pressure on the prime minister in the lead-up to the peace gathering in Annapolis, Md.

Olmert later clarified that he welcomed comments from Diaspora Jews, but never rescinded his position that Israel alone is sovereign in conducting negotiations.

The issue of Lauder’s letter was raised last week in a conference call Olmert held with members of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations.

Olmert, according to one member on the call, said he agreed with Lauder that Diaspora Jews should have a voice and Israel should at least listen to it before acting.

“Olmert completely agreed,” said the member, who wished to remain anonymous because the call was closed to the press. “He couldn’t have been more forthcoming in agreeing with Lauder’s sentiments.”

Moshe Ronen, chair of the Canada-Israel Committee (CIC) – the official representative of the organized Canadian Jewish community on matters pertaining to Canada-Israel relations – reaffirmed the CIC’s desire for Jerusalem to remain the united city it has always been – “with the exception of the 19 years of Jordanian occupation.

“We believe that the democratically elected government of Israel has the right to pursue a course of action based on democratic confirmation by its citizens and that Diaspora Jewry have a right and obligation to participate in the process – albeit through a constructive and respectful engagement of the Israeli government.”

With files from Andy Levy-Ajzenkopf of The CJN