Every year, intellectuals and public figures hold what seems like an endless spate of symposia on the various aspects of Israel-Diaspora relations - gatherings that touch on a number of crucial theoretical, religious, ethical, historic and political dimensions. Yet one issue that is never discussed is campaign contributions from wealthy Diaspora Jews to Israeli political candidates - be they for party primaries or the general election - as well as these donors' influence on the Israeli political system. The time has come for a serious examination of this issue.
This matter has never been a secret. Nearly every investigation into the activities of our sitting prime ministers have focused on the various methods of campaign fund-raising from foreign donors in one way or another. Even if Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is speaking the truth when he says all the cash Morris Talansky gave him was for his campaign for Jerusalem mayor and for Likud chairman, this is a practice that must stop. Over the past few weeks, Israelis have been bombarded with newspaper stories detailing how most of the country's political figures have raised enormous amounts of cash from Jews abroad. Without going into specifics and naming names, we all know that some have evaded criminal investigations by the skin of their teeth. In addition, the identities of the most generous donors and their political affiliations are known to all.
The law limits the amount of money Israeli citizens and corporations may donate to political candidates. Indeed, there is no financial law that cannot be circumvented in some creative way, yet the issue of foreign donations remains a loose end. The sums from abroad are astronomical.
The need to raise money for political campaigns, especially party primaries, is one of the key factors that has corrupted the norms of government in this country. Yet soliciting donations from abroad is a serious blow to the main principle of democracy. It usurps a significant part of the will of the sovereign - in this case, the citizens - and enables well-heeled foreigners who are not citizens to directly influence the election results.
No other democratic state in the world permits campaign funding from foreigners. It is clear that the special ties that bind Israel and Diaspora Jewry have created a unique situation. We live in a world where Jews abroad express solidarity with Israel and the Zionist enterprise by way of contributions - to the United Jewish Appeal, academic institutions, local municipalities, non-profit athletic organizations, educational programs and the like. This slippery slope eventually led to funding for political candidates, and the regrettable experiment of directly electing the prime minister only solidified the link between candidates and their foreign financial backers.
This situation must end. Israel correctly denies Diaspora Jews the right to vote, and Israelis who reside abroad cannot cast a ballot. How does one reconcile wealthy Jews - some of whom earned their fortune in ways that would best be left unexplored at the moment - using their financial muscle to determine who will be prime minister, minister or mayor?
Every piece of legislation designed to regulate or limit the scope of foreign donations is destined to fail, as was proven in the investigation into the various non-profit groups. There is only one way, extreme and drastic as it is, to put an end to this subversion of the democratic order: an absolute ban on all foreign donations, direct or indirect, whether for primaries or general elections.
The only effective sanction should be similarly drastic and simple: Anyone who violates the law will be ineligible for office. I'm not naive - this law also could be circumvented, though doing so would be much more difficult.
Israel is a Jewish state and a state of all its citizens. It serves as a rallying point for the Jews of the Diaspora. And yet, letting a group of Jewish millionaire and billionaire non-citizens use their wherewithal to interfere in Israel's political matters is intolerable, undemocratic and corrupting. None of the founding fathers of the Zionist movement could have dreamed of a Jewish state whose fate was determined by Jews in the Diaspora. It's time to seriously examine the issue, despite the opposition - self-serving and expected as it may be - of most of the country's political leadership. In the meantime, Israelis would be well-advised to demand each and every candidate declare that he does not receive foreign contributions. It is likely to be an effective step.
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