“He is French. Don’t discount this. He cannot be trusted,” Mr. Herbits advised. And then: “He is Tunisian. Do not discount this either. He works like an Arab.”
In one section of the document, Mr. Herbits quite bluntly suggests “an infusion of cash—say $5 million” from Matthew’s father, uncle Charles Bronfman, and siblings and friends to serve as a “transition vote of confidence” in the heir. “You would, of course, have to make a substantial gift yourself,” he reminds the candidate.
Another section of the document is titled, quite simply, “Engage, fight and win”—a clear reminder of the author’s Pentagon roots.
(Mr. Herbits didn’t respond to calls for comment. Mr. Besnainou told The Observer that he received an apology from Mr. Herbits at Monday’s meeting.)
The now-infamous memo, combined with his father’s resignation, have all but assured that Matthew won’t be running for W.J.C. president anytime soon. But in his absence, one candidate, a South African steel magnate named Mendel Kaplan, has already surfaced; Mr. Lauder could be a second. An election will be held in New York on June 10.
Mr. Lauder first took on a prominent role in the W.J.C. in the mid-1990’s, when the organization decided to expand its restitution campaign to include art stolen from Jews during World War II. Mr. Lauder—an aggressive art collector who made his first purchases with his bar-mitzvah money—chaired the newly created Commission for Art Recovery, overseeing the auction of plundered artwork that had gone unclaimed.
It seemed like the perfect assignment for Mr. Lauder, but there were complications. At that time, he also chaired the board of the Museum of Modern Art, an appointment that put him in an awkward position in leading the crusade to return looted artwork. In one high-profile instance, Mr. Lauder presided over an exhibition of work by an Austrian collector whose acquisition tactics were being challenged. Mr. Lauder sided with the museum—against the families.
According to several sources, Mr. Lauder first expressed interest in the W.J.C.’s top post more than five years ago, around the time Mr. Bronfman indicated for the first time that he might resign.
At the time, Mr. Lauder was serving as the W.J.C.’s treasurer. But then his interest seemed to wane—a change of heart that has inspired various theories. One theory is that he was frustrated by limited access to the organization’s financial records; the other view is that his bid was quashed by Mr. Bronfman in private, and then painfully in public.
In an article in The New York Times in January 2002, Edgar dismissed Mr. Lauder’s prospects. “He’s not a serious contender at this point in time—at least I don’t think he is,” Mr. Bronfman said. “But I can’t tell him what to do and what not to do.”
Among other things, Mr. Lauder, who is a close supporter of Likud hawk Benjamin Netanyahu and patron of the conservative Shalem Center think tank in Jerusalem, and Mr. Bronfman, who is an ally of the dovish former Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, hold politically divergent views on Israeli matters.
A special assistant to Mr. Lauder, Warren Kozak, said that Mr. Lauder hadn’t made a decision yet about running. But given the reports that some on the board are already throwing their weight behind Mr. Kaplan, who is currently the chairman of the W.J.C., Mr. Lauder’s spokesman seemed to want to keep his boss’ foot in the door. “There should be fair, open elections, after all that has gone on,” Mr. Kozak said.
Still, it was perhaps the candidate himself who spoke most revealingly about his intentions.
This January, as news circulated that Mr. Bronfman was preparing to resign for real, Mr. Lauder’s friends pushed him to run, and his interest in the position swelled. He told Page Six: “This is not a monarchy. This is not something you can just hand over to your son, and say, ‘Here it is.’”