The incoming United Nations secretary-general has yet to take office, but a controversy is already engulfing his nascent relationship with the American Jewish community.
South Korea’s Ban-Ki Moon, who will begin his term January 1 with little experience regarding Israel and its supporters, is coming under fire for his team’s relationship with a little-known Orthodox businessman and activist named Michael Landau. The head of a local Orthodox group in Manhattan, Landau has been actively courting the new secretary-general’s entourage and presenting himself as a go-between to help Ban navigate the U.N.’s notoriously fraught relationship with Jewish groups.
But several diplomats and major Jewish organizations are questioning whether Landau’s business activities could influence the advice he would give Ban, pointing to his courtship of African ambassadors at a time when he was involved in mining activities on the continent. Some critics fear that a backlash would be damaging to the Jewish community, Israel and the new secretary-general.
Landau is reportedly backed by Malcolm Hoenlein, the influential executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, though he is not affiliated with the umbrella group, widely viewed as the Jewish community’s leading voice on Middle Eastern affairs. Critics claim Hoenlein is pushing Landau as a go-between in order to become the community’s main interlocutor to Ban.
“It is inappropriate for any of us to promote a specific individual as a liaison without consulting the community leadership,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “The secretary-general should reach out to all of us.”
The ADL, the American Jewish Committee and B’nai B’rith International have refused to attend meetings with Ban and his close circle proposed by Landau in recent weeks, sources familiar with the situation told the Forward. On the other hand, they added, Landau has garnered some support from the World Jewish Congress. Landau declined several requests for comment. Hoenlein did not return calls.
On the day of his swearing-in, December 14, Ban made an appearance at the annual dinner of the Presidents’ Conference. Even while acknowledging that attending the event was a good way for Ban to show his willingness to engage the Jewish community, some observers fretted that this was in fact a nod to Hoenlein.
In a series of interviews, several Jewish communal leaders, U.N. officials and diplomats expressed deep misgivings about entrusting a little-known entity like Landau with a prominent intermediary role. Although no one produced evidence about the incompatibility of his business activities and his advocacy work, critics stressed that the recent trauma of the Iraq oil-for-food scandal required extra caution to avoid adverse consequences for Ban and the Jewish community.
Landau, who by all accounts is an engaging character, has been active in computer software companies and advised at least one mining company in recent years. His advocacy work is centered on the Coalition of Orthodox Jewish Organizations of the West Side, which caters to local community needs. He is the group’s chairman. He was also involved in the Jerusalem Coalition, which brought together Orthodox Jewish Republicans, helping to organize a trip by Christian conservative leader Gary Bauer to Israel in 2003. In recent years, Landau has been involved in U.N. affairs, organizing meetings, trips and receptions for ambassadors — often, communal sources said, working with the President’s Conference. Landau has attended meetings between Jewish groups and visiting foreign dignitaries on the sidelines of the annual U.N. General Assembly during which he was presented as representing the Presidents’ Conference, according to participants in the meetings. “I don’t have a problem with one or several go-betweens,” said Shai Franklin, director of international organizations at the World Jewish Congress. “No one should be cut out, there is room for everyone, be it an individual or a group.”
Landau also received strong backing for his advocacy work on behalf of the Orthodox community of the Upper West Side. Rabbi Alan Schwarz, religious leader of a local Orthodox congregation and president of the group chaired by Landau, praised his boundless energy and his ability to solve mundane issues. Hank Sheinkopf, a political consultant, described Landau as a tireless advocate for the Orthodox and the larger Jewish community, saying that his cultivating of ties with African ambassadors was smart diplomacy.
One area of concern for some critics is Landau’s close work with several African ambassadors at a time when he was in business with a Canadian company mining gold on the continent back in 2005.
In January 2005, a Landau-run company called Vango Holdings was hired by Searchgold Resources, a Canadian mining firm active in Gabon and Guinea, to become responsible for its investor relations. At the time, Landau was on good terms with Jean Ping, the foreign minister of Gabon, who held the position of president of the General Assembly. Landau organized receptions and meetings for Ping. Searchgold’s activities in Gabon picked up in early 2005, with the company announcing that it had raised more than $1.1 million, resumed drilling at its Bakoudou mine and obtained a new exploration permit. But Searchgold parted ways with Landau four months later. Searchgold director Maurice Giroux told the Forward that Landau was not a good fit and that his contacts in Gabon did not prove useful. He declined to elaborate. Requests for comment to the Gabonese mission to the U.N. were not returned.
Several sources said on condition of anonymity that Landau had openly bragged about his clout with sub-Saharan African ambassadors. “He is a businessman, first and foremost,” said a person familiar with Landau’s interactions with African diplomats.
Sources said that Landau helped set up a trip to Israel in early 2004 for six African diplomats sponsored by the American-Israel Friendship League, a nonprofit chaired by Kenneth Bialkin, a former chairman of the ADL and the Presidents’ Conference.
Several Jewish communal activists speaking on the condition of anonymity said that they have heard directly from Israeli officials about concerns regarding Landau. At least one top Jewish communal leader passed his concerns to the leadership of the Conference of Presidents. Israeli diplomats at the U.N. mission declined to comment.
“Ban should get a sense of the diversity of our community,” said Sybil Kessler, director of U.N. affairs at B’nai B’rith International. “I would like him to appoint a senior official as a focal point.”
This is a reference to the “focal points” created by outgoing Secretary-General Kofi Annan within his secretariat to facilitate dealings with a variety of groups or interests not formally represented at the U.N. One of Annan ’s lieutenants served as a liaison to the American Jewish community, a position Annan saw as a key to improving the U.N.’s historically strained relationship with Israel and, cynics would add, to currying favor in Washington during hard times.
The current “focal point” is Edward Mortimer, a U.N. official from Britain who will return to Europe when Annan officially finishes his term in the next few weeks. Much speculation has centered on whether Ban will maintain the position. “I briefed the new S.G. and his team and advised them to keep the focal point, which was appreciated by the Jewish community,” Mortimer said.
A senior secretariat official also said Ban was leaning toward appointing a point-person on his staff and steering clear of an outside fixer. Some U.N. officials have quietly discouraged Ban’s team from granting Landau a prominent role. While no personnel announcement has yet been made, the message seems to have been heard.
Yeocheol Yoon, a political counselor at the South Korean mission to the U.N. and an adviser to Ban, told the Forward that the new secretary-general was talking to a variety of Jewish groups and representatives and that Landau was merely one interlocutor. He added that the secretary was likely to appoint a focal point within his office. “We’ll do it our way, but we’ll certainly have someone on the inside and we never had the idea of tapping someone from the outside.”