Israeli GOP Group Accepts Donations From non-Americans; Experts Question Legality

U.S. Federal Election Commission to Haaretz: Foreign nationals may not make contributions or donations in connection with any election – federal, state or local – either directly or through any other person.

Rally meeting of the Israeli-American Donald Trump supporters in Jerusalem, October 26, 2016.
Rally meeting of the Israeli-American Donald Trump supporters in Jerusalem, October 26, 2016. Olivier Fitoussi

The Israeli organization that represents the Republican Party in Israel accepts donations from non-Americans, a practice banned by U.S. law when used for an American election campaign. Republicans Overseas Israel, however, denies any wrongdoing, saying it is adhering to Israeli law.

Analysts say Republicans Overseas Israel may be breaking the U.S. law that bars non-citizens from paying for ads, rallies, events or other messages to Americans abroad in coordination with a U.S. political party or for the election of a specific candidate.

Republicans Overseas Israel staged a big event on Wednesday: a 200-person rally in support of Donald Trump outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. The event featured two New York-based Trump advisers: bankruptcy expert David Friedman and Trump’s Jewish outreach chief, David Peyman. Friedman promised that Trump would fire any adviser preventing the U.S. Embassy from moving to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, and the event peaked with video messages by Trump and his vice presidential pick, Mike Pence.

The Republicans in Israel have never campaigned so hard. The campaign has held events in areas rich with U.S. citizens, and has opened offices including one in the West Bank. An unnamed volunteer told Channel 1 News that “people are being persuaded, telephone calls are being made, stickers are being handed out.”

Donald Trump vows to protect Israel YouTube

Trump’s campaign managers in Israel, led by former Yedioth Ahronoth journalist Tzvika Brot, have told reporters they coordinate directly with Trump headquarters in New York. Brot, who works under the GOP’s leader in Israel, Marc Zell, has told Army Radio the donors are both Americans and Israelis without U.S. citizenship. Brot has told the daily Maariv that “to us, Israel is the 51st state from the elections standpoint.”

“It’s the only country where so much is being invested in the campaign. In few other countries is a campaign taking place; in Germany and Britain, for example. But an estimated 350,000 eligible U.S. voters live in Israel, about 5 percent of the population – that’s a lot,” Brot said.

“And this is where the Republican twist comes in. This is the only country in the world outside the U.S. where an absolute majority of potential voters lean to the right; in other words, to the Republican side. For every vote from here there’s an 80 percent chance of a vote in favor of the party, so it’s worth investing here in the campaign to raise awareness about the election.”

Brot also said the amount of money his people had raised was large, even outside Israel. Also the campaign claims to have boosted the percentage of American Israelis registering to vote by 60 percent. It claims to have reached thousands from swing states such as Ohio and Florida.

Spokespeople at the New York-based Trump campaign did not respond to Haaretz’s queries.

David Friedman, left, with Donald Trump and Ivanka Trump, in Camden, New Jersey, Feb. 25, 2010.
Bradley C. Bower / Bloomberg

A minimum $8.60

Meanwhile, the local Republican campaign has been soliciting donations in Israel; for example, its website does not contain a function blocking Israelis from donating.

In September, the party announced that it would let Israelis who do not have U.S. citizenship register with the party in Israel for a minimum payment of 33 shekels ($8.60). The U.S.-based Trump campaign website requires donors to provide an address in the United States, and there is no option to type in a non-American address. The Israeli site takes any address.

“The GOP in Israel is a legally registered association, subject to the laws of the State of Israel,” the local campaign told Haaretz. “Accordingly, the topic of fundraising and financing its activity is not subject to American campaign law, but to the rules relevant to Israeli associations.”

Under American law, any PAC, a political action committee, must register with the Federal Election Commission and disclose donors. Republicans Overseas Israel refuses to disclose its donors, saying they are not high-profile names. But if a donor provides more than 20,000 shekels, he or she will have to be mentioned in Republicans Overseas Israel’s 2016 annual report – which is due out in July.

In 1974 the United States enacted the Federal Election Campaign Act, which prohibits “any foreign national from contributing, donating or spending funds in connection with any federal, state, or local election in the United States, either directly or indirectly.”

The Federal Election Commission not only bans such donations, it bans campaigning and the soliciting of donations.

A Donald Trump supporter attends a rally in honor of the Republican candidate in Jerusalem on Wednesday, October 26, 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

“It is also unlawful to help foreign nationals violate that ban or to solicit, receive or accept contributions or donations from them,” the commission states on its website. “Persons who knowingly and willfully engage in these activities may be subject to fines and/or imprisonment.”

Haaretz asked the Federal Election Commission about the legality of parties accepting money through branches abroad. Judith Ingram from the commission’s press office wrote: “Foreign nationals may not make contributions or donations in connection with any election – federal, state or local – either directly or through any other person.”

Eyes on U.S. law

In an email to Haaretz, Larry Noble, the legal counsel to the Washington-based Campaign Legal Center and previously the Federal Election Commission’s legal counsel for 13 years, questioned the legality of the Republican Party’s activities in Israel.

“Depending on the specific facts, this may involve several violations of U.S. law,” wrote Noble, who is also a visiting professor of campaign finance law at the George Washington University Law School.

“It is illegal for any foreign (non-U.S.) individual or entity to solicit contributions for the Trump campaign or the U.S. Republican party and for the campaign or party to accept those contributions. It is also illegal for any non-U.S. citizen to make a contribution to the Trump campaign or the Republican party,” Noble added.

“Even if they are not soliciting contributions directly for the Trump campaign or party, it is illegal for them to use foreign funds (funds not from U.S. citizens) to pay for ads, rallies, events or other messages to U.S. citizens in Israel supporting the election of Trump or Republican candidates if done in coordination with the Trump campaign or the U.S. political party. And, it is illegal for Trump and the party to accept that help.”

As Noble put it, “For example, if the Trump/Pence video was recorded to be shown to U.S. citizens in Israel and the event it was shown at was paid for by non-U.S. funds, the Trump campaign would have violated the law. To put it more simply, it is illegal for the Trump campaign to coordinate election activity paid for by non-U.S. citizens and aimed at U.S. voters. Some issues, such as whether the campaign is coordinating with the group under the law, do depend on the specific facts.”

But the Trump campaign in Israel says it is operating within the law and does not take money from the Trump operation in the United States because of legal restrictions. Meanwhile, the local office says the rally in Jerusalem was not an event supporting Trump against Clinton; it was not an explicit call to support Trump, so it was not a campaign event.

Noble questions this logic. “Under U.S. campaign finance law, urging people to ‘support’ a candidate is the same as urging them to ‘vote’ for a candidate,” he wrote.

“The cost of an event or communication where they urge people to support a candidate would be considered a contribution to the candidate. It is illegal to pay those costs with non-U.S. funds.”

As Noble put it, “In fact, even the cost of activity that does not directly urge people to vote for or support a candidate may be considered a contribution to the candidate if it is coordinated with the candidate.”