Washington — Israel’s strict campaign finance rules may pose hurdles to wealthy American Jews seeking to weigh in on the state’s upcoming elections. But that has not stopped some from making their voices heard.
The few avenues open for activists in the United States wishing to influence the ballot’s outcome include providing limited funds to individual candidates in party primary races and launching nonpartisan, but carefully targeted, get-out-the-vote campaigns during the general election. Both efforts are now reaching their fruition, with primary races completed and with an elaborate voter recruitment campaign being planned by progressive Jewish groups for the March 17 election.
Unlike America’s multimillion-dollar election races, the Israeli system provides for a leaner, more highly regulated process. In the United States, TV and radio advertisement costs are the main expenses candidates face. But in Israel, these media slots are given out for free based on the party’s size in the previous general election. Moreover, parties are prohibited from using their own funds to buy additional time.
Campaign funds provided by the state cover many of the other expenses. Meanwhile, as in America, foreign citizens are prohibited from donating to political parties.
This leaves only primary races open to Americans who wish to wield their checkbooks to influence Israel’s future — for those few parties that hold primaries. In these races, individual candidates jockey for enough votes from rank-and-file members of their party to win a high ranking on their party’s candidate list. Their entry into the Knesset is then decided by how many slots their party wins in the general election and how high up they are their party’s list.
As in previous elections, the biggest beneficiary of American donors during the primary phase this year was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who raked in $243,900. That is hardly a rounding error in the United States. But it’s a significant amount in Israel, given that Netanyahu was not seriously challenged for the position of party leader. He won the leadership contest handily with more than 75% support.
Money that candidates have left over from primaries may not be used in the general election.
Netanyahu relied on American Jewish donors to provide most of his financing. And these funds came primarily from three families. The largest donors were the Falic family of Florida, owners of airport duty-free stores and longtime supporters of the Likud leader. They enlisted four family members, each of whom gave the maximum allowable contribution of about $11,500. New Jersey’s Book family, who own a large private jet servicing company, also had four members donate to Netanyahu, giving $11,000 each, and three members of the Schottenstein family from Columbus, Ohio, gave $10,000 each.
Trailing Netanyahu as the second-largest recipient of campaign funds from American donors was Danny Danon, one of the Likud’s most vocal right-wingers and a harsh critic of Netanyahu’s policy on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Despite their diverging ideologies, Danon and Netanyahu share close ties to American supporters, a result, in Danon’s case, of frequent U.S. visits and appeals to American Jews in his role as head of World Likud, the party’s international arm. These ties paid off handsomely in this election cycle; Danon managed to raise more than $100,000 from American donors. That support also includes non-Jewish backers, thanks to the relationships he has cultivated during his many speaking tours in the United States.
But bundles of cash from American donors don’t necessarily predict success in the primary elections. Likudnik Avi Dichter, a former head of Israel’s domestic security agency, the Shin Bet, managed to raise nearly $44,000 from American donors, more than many other Likud candidates. But when votes on the January 1 primary were tallied, Dichter, a former Cabinet minister, finished low on the party list. Dichter is now appealing, arguing that there were irregularities in the vote count. But he is unlikely to make it into the next Knesset.
Within Israel’s Labor Party, which held its primary on January 13, it was once again candidates with strong ties to the American Jewish community who brought in significant sums from American donors. Knesset member Nachman Shai, who previously headed the Israeli office of the Jewish Federations of North America, received more than $37,000 from American donors, some of them involved in the federation system. Shai won the 20th place on the list, which will likely ensure him a seat in the next Knesset.
Merav Michaeli, an up-and-coming politician who made her mark in her first term in the Knesset and has visited the United States frequently, got more than $10,000 from American supporters. Michaeli made it to the ninth place on the Labor list.