Obama’s Interference in Israel’s Elections May Backfire

There is something deeply disingenuous about the mutual accusations of foreign interference in Israel’s election. Human nature is the same on both sides of the political divide, and hypocrisy is bipartisan. But, sometimes, one side gets the trophy. To the charge of foreign involvement and of illegal party funding, the Israeli left typically replies that Benjamin Netanyahu is the pot calling the kettle black since his American friend Sheldon Adelson also funds him indirectly via the Israel Hayom newspaper. The difference, of course, is that Netanyahu does not deny that Adelson is his friend and that he established Israel Hayom to challenge Yediot Aharonot. The Israeli left, on the other hand, denies that it enjoys the support of the V15 organization and of the Obama Administration.

There is likewise a difference between Netanyahu hiring a Republican strategist and President Obama “lending” his campaign guru Jeremy Bird to Netanyahu’s political rivals – not least because Obama explained that he would not meet with Netanyahu in Washington so as not to be perceived as favoring one candidate (just in case anyone suspected Obama of praying for Bibi’s reelection). Bill Clinton also campaigned against Netanyahu in the 1990s, but at least he did not try to hide it. In 1996, Clinton hosted Labor candidate Shimon Peres at the White House right before the Israeli elections. In the 1999 Israeli elections, Clinton sent Democratic pollster and political strategist Stanley Greenberg to Israel to help Labor candidate Ehud Barak.

While President Obama says he does not want to be accused of interference in Israel’s elections, Jeremy Bird is advising V15, a grassroots movement whose purpose is to unseat Benjamin Netanyahu. One also wonders why Israel’s Labor Party, while sharing V15’s agenda, denies any connection to it. V15 is backed by “OneVoice,” a political NGO that has received funding from the US State Department. OneVoice’s website lists among its “Honorary Board of Advisors” Israeli politicians from the Labor party such as Labor-Hatnua candidates for the 20th Knesset Danny Attar and Yoel Hasson (slots 15 and 16, respectively), as well as former Labor MKs Colette Avital and Ephraim Sneh.

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The State Department gives money to many NGOs around the world, including to OneVoice. But OneVoice backs a political organization (V15) that is directly involved in Israel’s 2015 elections. V15 and OneVoice share the same office in Tel-Aviv. While OneVoice claims that the money it has received from the State Department was not used to fund V15, US Senator Ted Cruz and US Representative Lee Zeldin suspect otherwise and have asked Secretary of State John Kerry to provide evidence that US taxpayer money is not being used to influence the outcome of the upcoming Israeli election.

The issue of political funding by non-profit organizations is a controversial one – not only in Israel. In 2010, the US Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to restrict independent political expenditures by non-profit organizations (“Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission”). Those expenditures clearly constitute indirect political funding. In Israel, by contrast, political parties can only receive money from the State, as well as small donations from individuals whose identity must be disclosed. Candidates and parties are not allowed to receive money, directly or indirectly, from businesses and non-profit organizations. But what, exactly, constitutes “indirect funding?” In Israel, an NGO would clearly break the law by paying for public ads in support of a candidate. But would it break the law by publishing policy papers that implicitly endorse a candidate’s platform?

Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak got into legal trouble precisely because of those “grey areas.” Prior to the 1999 elections, he had set-up well-funded non-profit organizations to help his campaign. Barak thought that this was a clever way of circumventing the strict limitations of political funding in Israel, since non-profit organizations can receive as much money as they want (both from Israeli and foreign donors). Officially, those non-profit organizations set up by Barak had nothing to do with his campaign. The Israeli police happened to think otherwise and questioned Barak, as well as then Government Secretary Isaac Herzog (today’s Labor Chairman). The police, however, were unable to prove that Barak had broken the law – not least because Herzog invoked his legal right not to answer the police’s questions.

Recent polls indicate that Likud is pulling ahead of Labor. It seems that the dubious techniques of Israel’s left-wing journalists and of the Obama Administration are throwing undecided voters into the arms of the right.

Reprinted with author’s permission from i24 News