“This is an organized campaign, funded by foreign actors and by not-for-profit organizations, and it is clearly against the law,” Likud Knesset member Ofir Akunis declared, holding up to the cameras a printout of a Facebook page.
Akunis was speaking at a well-attended press conference in Tel Aviv. And he claimed his printout proved that Israel’s main opposition party was connected to an American-funded organization working to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud’s standard-bearer. Lawyers from the party followed up on Akunis’s claim with an official complaint to Israel’s central election committee, arguing that the opposition’s campaign “makes criminal use of secret and high-value foreign funding sources.”
Within days, this charge became a political football in two countries.
In Washington, Republican lawmakers picked up on the claim and sought to tie the Obama administration to the controversy. “There appears to be a danger that U.S. taxpayer funds are being used to directly shape the outcome of the upcoming Israeli elections,” Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York wrote in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry.
And in Israel, Likud activists had the satisfaction of seeing the controversy dominate election campaign discourse.
The Likud’s focus on an alleged foreign funded, anti-Netanyahu get-out-the-vote campaign could easily create the impression that foreign entities, mainly liberal American Jews, have taken over the Israeli elections. Using means that are at best questionable from a legal standpoint, Netanyahu’s defenders argue, these activities are all for one purpose — defeating Netanyahu.
Yet an examination of allegations leveled in recent weeks by the Likud and its supporters reveals a more complicated and uncertain picture. The amount of money at issue is relatively small; its impact on Israeli elections will thus likely be marginal. Moreover, depending on how it is given, the entire practice can well be compliant with American tax laws. Israeli courts will determine eventually if it is legal under Israeli campaign finance rules as well.
Still, the notion of foreign money being used to influence Israeli politics has a captivating effect on voters and activists.
“It’s easy for those who hold a nationalistic approach to portray anyone from the outside as an enemy. If those outside Israel are enemies, then you can easily attack your rivals from the left as collaborating with these enemies,” said Yoram Peri, director of The Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel studies at the University of Maryland. “It’s a trick that is intended to delegitimize the left, and the problem is that it works every time.”
Much of the attention in recent days was directed at V15, short for Victory 2015, a new Israeli group aiming to strengthen Netanyahu’s opponents by getting otherwise apathetic young liberals to vote in the March 17 elections. Operating from a cramped office space in downtown Tel Aviv, V15 makes no secret of its goal. “In 2015, we’re replacing the government,” the group’s billboard advertisements state, taking aim at the sitting prime minister. Research conducted by the group indicates that a massive get-out-the-vote campaign targeting potential supporters of the left and the center-left, which in previous elections have showed lower than average turnout, could add two or three seats to the anti-Likud bloc, potentially tilting the balance, if the race remains as tight as it currently is.
The group relies on a handful of donors, two of them Americans. One of these is OneVoice, an organization based in the United States and devoted to promoting a two-state solution. OneVoice’s founder and chief funder is Daniel Lubetzky, a Mexican-born businessman who has been active in supporting initiatives both in Israel and in the Palestinian territories to promote grassroots support for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. OneVoice was instrumental in setting up the Knesset’s caucus in favor of a two-state resolution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and to its 47-year-old occupation of the West Bank.
The other chief American donor is S. Daniel Abraham, a businessman who has devoted much of his fortune to promoting Israeli-Arab peace. Abraham is known for his close ties to Israeli leaders from the center and the left.
OneVoice’s funding of V15 drew immediate rage from the Likud and from Republicans in America. Much of it was aimed at making the link to the Obama administration, since OneVoice had received a grant from the State Department. “Can the Department of State guarantee that none of these funds have been or will be used in… the partnership with V15 or any similar effort to exert undue influence over the Israeli political process?” Cruz and Zeldin asked in their letter to Kerry.
The State Department quickly answered that question in the affirmative: The $233,500 grant to OneVoice for programs supporting a two-state solution, in line with U.S. policy, ended in November 2014 — more than a month before Netanyahu made his surprise announcement to call for early elections.
But even after this claim was settled, critics of the anti-Netanyahu campaign noted another possible tie to Obama: His 2012 presidential campaign field director, Jeremy Bird, is on the ground in Israel with a team of four colleagues, helping out V15’s effort. “It is simply hypocrisy and interference in Israel’s elections for President Obama to say that he will not meet with the Israeli Prime Minister because Israeli elections are too close, while his closest electoral advisers suddenly appear in Israel for the sole purpose of leading a campaign to unseat the Israeli Prime Minister,” stated Morton Klein, national president of the Zionist Organization of America.
Bird ended his ties with the Obama campaign once elections were over, and like many other American political consultants he is often hired to work on campaigns overseas. One such consultant, longtime Republican operative Arthur Finkelstein, was for many years a key campaign adviser to Netanyahu. According to reports in the late 1990s, the money to hire him then came in part from American billionaire Ronald Lauder.
The bigger question, however, relates not to the involvement of the Obama administration in the anti-Netanyahu campaign, but to the legality of American not-for-profit organizations raising money for political causes in Israel.
“The fact that they don’t support a specific party is not relevant; the question is do they support or oppose a certain candidate?” said Bruce Hopkins, a lawyer specializing in not-for-profit organizations. He noted that if American tax deductable dollars are going to an organization in Israel aimed at changing the government, it could lead to revocation of the group’s tax exemption.
But organizers involved in several of the campaigns now operating in Israel told the Forward they had taken extra care to ensure that donations raised in the United States through American-registered not-for-profit organizations go only to non-partisan uses, based on precedents set in previous election cycles.
In a statement to the Forward, a spokesman for PeaceWorks Foundation, the official name of OneVoice’s American operation, said that American funders of OneVoice in Israel expect the group not to use funds raised in America for activities connected to the political campaign. “OneVoice Israel understands that there are limitations on how it can use funds donated by PeaceWorks and is committed to respecting the rules that apply to PeaceWorks as a U.S. public charity,” the spokesman said.
In Israel, however, the question is still up in the air.
Israeli election finance laws strictly prohibit any overseas funding, either directly to parties or through organizations affiliated with them. To prove that election rules were violated, the Likud will have to demonstrate that an Israeli political party had direct control over V15 or over other campaigns funded by foreign money.
The Zionist Camp, the joint party made up of Labor and Ha’Tnuah, denied that there was any coordination with V15. “We have no connection to V15. We don’t know what it is,” Zionist Camp leader Isaac Herzog said to Israeli TV’s Channel 2. “When I heard that name for the first time, I thought it was either some kind of an airplane or an erectile dysfunction medication.”
But David Shimron, a lawyer representing the Likud, insisted in a February 1 press conference that Israel’s election laws “have been trampled on”; he called the V15 campaign “illegal and prohibited.”
Israel’s central election committee will rule on the legality of foreign donations to V15 in the coming weeks. It is likely that the losing side, whichever it is, will appeal to the Supreme Court.
Most American organizations and individuals active in Israel’s election campaign were reluctant to discuss their work publicly. Yet activists involved were willing to map out the various campaigns being conducted with American money.
On the progressive side there are three main operations working to oust Netanyahu. V15 is trying mainly to energize younger left-leaning voters and make sure they come out and vote. Another Israeli-operated, American-funded campaign is focused on increasing turnout among Israeli Arabs, an underrepresented community that tends to vote heavily, though not exclusively, for parties on Israel’s left or for parties that could potentially support a dovish coalition. A third campaign being discussed by American activists is headed by generals and former defense officials speaking out for a two-state solution and, implicitly, against Netanyahu’s policies. In addition, American strategists, pollsters and ad producers are doing work with Israeli nonpartisan organizations that are aiming to bolster the left and center-left.
“We encourage our supporters to be involved in activities in Israel that follow our values,” said the national president of Ameinu, Kenneth Bob, who is raising funds for the drive to get Arab Israelis out to the polls. Bob stressed that supporting Israel’s Arab community has long been a focus of his organization. He noted that donations for increasing the Arab vote are “all legal and completely nonpartisan.”
The right wing has seen less activity by overseas funders this election cycle. This is, in part, due to legal restrictions that limit donations to nonpartisan efforts, leaving voter participation campaigns the only viable way for foreign donors to influence Israeli elections. Voter turnout in traditional right-wing strongholds, including settlements and Orthodox communities, is already high, leaving little use for a get-out-the-vote drive.
But critics of the Likud point to what they see as another huge foreign campaign donation that has gone unnoticed — the Israel Hayom daily newspaper, known for its strongly pro-Netanyahu political slant and funded by American billionaire Sheldon Adelson. Netanyahu’s political rivals have tried unsuccessfully to pass legislation regulating the publication, which is distributed free and is now Israel’s largest circulating newspaper. But Israel’s courts have never been asked to rule on whether Israel Hayom and its foreign funding violate campaign financing laws.
None of the groups and individuals involved in funding Israeli election activity would disclose the amounts funneled. Some noted that their fundraising was still in its early stages. Estimates ranged from several hundred thousand dollars to a final goal of $2 million to $3 million by the time the campaign is over. Money would be used primarily for setting up voter databases and for paying activists to contact potential voters and make sure they go to the ballots.
“The impact is fairly marginal,” said Howard Sumka, a former CEO of OneVoice. “Israelis already know what they think and know what they want.” But Sumka, a retired senior Foreign Service officer who headed the office of the United States Agency for International Development for the West Bank and Gaza, noted that American involvement in the elections has to do not only with impact, but also with the donors’ wish to take action. “Americans, especially Diaspora Americans, always have an interest in getting involved, even when their influence is marginal.”
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com or on Twitter,@nathanguttman