Diplomatic Pouch / March 4, 2016
By Larry Luxner
Why was Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress and former U.S. envoy to Austria, the guest of honor at a March 2 reception at the home of Colombian Ambassador Juan Carlos Pinzón?
The answer is simple: the billionaire businessman and heir to the Estée Lauder cosmetics fortune is an investor in — and outspoken friend of — Colombia, which in turn is a steadfast supporter of Israel at the United Nations, where it has strongly opposed recognition of Palestinian statehood.
During the event, Pinzón, Colombia’s former defense minister, lavished praise on Lauder for his leadership in developing vibrant Jewish communities across Latin America and around the world. That includes Colombia, home to about 5,000 Jews out of a total population of 48 million.
“In Mr. Lauder, we are honoring someone who has forged a close bond with Colombia – and Colombia, in turn, has become a friend to the World Jewish Congress,” said Pinzón. “Colombia remains one of Israel’s longest, strongest partners and supporters. Mr. Lauder’s leadership at the helm of the WJC since 2007 has been central to advancing this alliance.”
Lauder, 72, is active in the Republican Party and in 1989 made a bid to become mayor of New York City, losing to Rudy Guiliani in the primary. Like Donald Trump and Israel’s current ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, he’s a graduate of the Wharton School of Finance; his net worth is reported at $4 billion.
In 2012, RWL Water Group — one of the companies Lauder controls — won a $100 million contract to design and construct a desalination plant in Puerto Gaitan, in central Colombia’s Meta region. Lauder is also an ardent supporter of President Juan Manuel Santos, whose government is negotiating a peace accord with FARC guerrillas that would end 60 years of civil strife.
“I want to thank Colombia for the courage you have shown over all these years, courage that you continue to demonstrate,” Lauder said. “It’s not always easy being a friend of the Jewish people or Israel or the United States. But frankly, I believe this puts you on the right side of history. We remember our friends.”
Pinzón, in turn, praised the Jewish state for its efforts to forge a comprehensive peace agreement with its Arab neighbors. What he didn’t mention is that, over the years, Israeli defense contractors have sold tens of millions of dollars worth of weaponry, mortars, surveillance technology and special forces training to successive Colombian governments. In mid-2013, when Pinzón was still his country’s defense minister, Santos paid an official three-day visit to Israel, where he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then-President Shimon Peres and other key figures.
In 1999, Lauder played a backstage role in trying to broker a peace deal between Netanyahu and then-Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. But his secret mission failed because Assad demanded a total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.
“Whether countering anti-Semitism, supporting the people of Israel in their struggle to live in peace with their neighbors or leading successful efforts to recover stolen Jewish property, including art stolen during World War II – something about which he is deeply passionate – he has led the development of vibrant Jewish communities around the world,” Pinzón said of Lauder.
“Not only has Colombia’s Jewish community greatly contributed to the fabric of our nation, Colombia has also benefited from strong ties with the Jewish community here in the United States and worldwide – from diplomatic support to business and investment. And it is because of people and the commitment of leaders like Mr. Lauder that those ties continue to strengthen,” he concluded.
More than 100 people attended the reception, including lawmakers, White House officials, business executives, journalists and members of the local Jewish community.