Malcolm Hoenlein says his role with Israeli gas giant is ‘completely transparent’

Malcolm Hoenlein, center, with Ronald Lauder, left, at the Apollo Theater in New York, March 16, 2011. (Shahar Azran/WireImage/Getty Images)

NEW YORK (JTA) — Malcolm Hoenlein, the professional head of one of American Jewry’s most influential organizations and a board member of a large Israeli energy company, told JTA that he sees no conflict between those roles.

Hoenlein is executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella group that speaks for over 50 Jewish groups on foreign policy, including issues related to Israel. Since June, he has also been on the board of directors of Delek Drilling, a private company that is a major stakeholder in Israel’s large offshore natural gas fields.

His role in the company has come under scrutiny after the Forward reported last week that the Presidents Conference has been active on issues relevant to Delek operations. The article also said that constituent groups of the Presidents Conference did not know about Hoenlein sitting on the Delek board.

Since its publication, two large constituent groups, the Union for Reform Judaism and the American Jewish Committee, said they are seeking more transparency about his activities outside of the Presidents Conference.

But Hoenlein insists that he and the Presidents Conference leadership have been transparent.

“It was announced in a big newspaper story,” he told JTA in a phone interview Friday, referring to his appointment as a Delek director. “It was no secret. This was nothing other than completely transparent.”

The Forward article suggested a possible conflict of interest between Hoenlein’s role at the energy company and his positive assessments of Egypt’s autocratic president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Sisi’s government recently signed a $15 billion deal to buy energy from Delek and Noble Energy, which control the natural gas field.

The story also noted Hoenlein’s advocacy of stronger ties between Israel and Cyprus and Greece, which he calls a “Mediterranean alternative” to the Jewish state’s hostile neighbors. A pipeline from the natural gas fields to Turkey, the article said, would run through Cypriot waters.

Hoenlein told JTA that the meetings he and his group have long held with Middle Eastern leaders have no relation to his position at Delek. His support for Sisi and Cyprus predate his appointment as a Delek director. He said he uses those meetings to improve relations between the Arab world and Israel, and that other Presidents Conference members are also present at them. The work with Greece and Cyprus, he said, also involves Greek-American leaders and B’nai B’rith, the Jewish group.

Hoenlein is seen as an ally of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and as a backchannel with regional heads of state.

“We’ve been doing it for more than 20 years,” he said regarding Presidents Conference meetings with Arab leaders. “I’ve only been on the [Delek] board since June … We don’t have negotiations. We talk about the issues. People are always present at these meetings who can tell you what we did say.”

Hoenlein added that he played no part in negotiating the deal among Delek, Noble and Egypt. He also holds no Delek stock, he told JTA, though its board members do receive compensation.

“There were no contradictions; quite the opposite,” he said. “This enhances our role and our understanding of the region.”

The Forward spoke with a few Presidents Conference members who said they did not know Hoenlein sat on the Delek board. Hoenlein did not send a notice to members when he accepted the position. But he said his appointment was public knowledge, as it had been reported in several Israeli and American business newspapers.

A Google search found mentions of his appointment on an undated stock market information page maintained by Reuters, as well as a Feb. 5 Bloomberg article on Israel-Turkey relations. The most prominent of the mentions was a June 29 article in the Israeli publication The Marker, which appears in Hebrew, declaring that Delek was acquiring a new director “who is well connected to the high places — in Israel and the United States — and no less so in Arab countries.”

Hoenlein also said he cleared the appointment with the Presidents Conference chairman, Stephen Greenberg, before accepting the post — as he had done when accepting board positions at other companies.

“You don’t think it’s a tribute?” Hoenlein asked of being offered the board position. “That it’s a recognition on the part of the business world that we have executives they respect and think are worthy? I completely disclosed this.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said there did not appear to be anything untoward in the arrangement, though transparency at the Presidents Conference was an issue.

“We continue to be concerned about the lack of transparency at the Conference of Presidents,” Jacobs said in a statement in response to JTA. “However we have no reason to believe there is any wrongdoing.”

The American Jewish Committee praised Hoenlein, but said it is seeking more information about the effect of his role at Delek.

“We have always had great respect and appreciation for Malcolm’s indefatigable role in the life of the Jewish people,” the AJC said in a statement shared with the Forward. “That said, we were previously unaware of his membership on the board of Delek Drilling. We are now seeking to understand the significance of that connection and what impact, if any at all, it could have on the important work of the Conference of Presidents.”

The Presidents Conference announced last month, weeks before the Forward story, that Hoenlein would begin the process of stepping aside as CEO of the organization as the group seeks “an executive to assume responsibility for the Conference’s ongoing operations and activities,” but that he would stay on in a capacity still to be determined. He has held the post for 32 years, in that time becoming one of the most important interlocutors between the Jewish establishment and both Washington and Jerusalem.

Asked what prompted his decision Hoenlein, 74, told JTA on Friday that he wanted to make the move before the group chooses a new chair, a process that will begin soon, because he did not want the decision to be seen as a rebuke of the new chair.

“It’s not because I’m tired,” he said. “I have more energy than almost anyone. I did it because I just wanted to do the right thing … I wanted to do it before we started electing a chair. I like all the candidates, and it has nothing to do with that. I didn’t want it to appear as if I am casting aspersions on the next chairperson.”