Analysis |

Despite Likud Accusations, anti-Netanyahu NGO Campaign Is Legal

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A protest organized by V15 over Netanyahu's bottle deposit scandal, January 29, 2015. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

The main source of funding for election campaigns is supposed to be the money parties get from the state. Aside from that, parties can receive donations only from eligible voters, and such donations are limited to a few thousand shekels.

Parties are required to publish the names of all their donors, so donations can’t be made anonymously. And donations from corporations or nongovernmental organizations are illegal, even if they are made indirectly – for instance, by paying the party’s pollsters.

Supervising campaign finance is the state comptroller’s job, but the maximum sanction he can impose is fining the party twice the amount of the illegal donation. If criminal proceedings are brought, giving or receiving an illegal donation bears a maximum sentence of a year in prison. Circumventing the campaign finance laws may also entail additional crimes, like falsifying reports to the state comptroller.

In the biggest case of illegal campaign finance to date, former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s son Omri confessed to accepting donations from foreign corporations to fund his father’s 1999 campaign for leadership of the Likud party. Omri Sharon was sentenced to seven months in jail.

But the Sharon case wasn’t the analogy Likud officials sought to draw Sunday, and indeed, the accusations they leveled are far from being of a similar scope. Instead, they compared the V15 organization to the NGOs that helped finance Ehud Barak’s prime ministerial campaign in 1999.

The roots of the Barak case actually lay in Benjamin Netanyahu’s successful prime ministerial campaign three years earlier. During the 1996 campaign, Australian Jewish billionaire Joseph Gutnick paid for an advertising blitz whose slogan was “Netanyahu is good for the Jews.” That was the first election held under the now-repealed law for direct election of the prime minister, and when then-Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein investigated whether Gutnick’s ads violated the campaign finance laws, he concluded that due to a lacuna in the direct election law, outside support for a candidate was legal as long as it was neither initiated by nor coordinated with the candidate.

In the 1999 election, several NGOs deliberately exploited that gap in the law to work for Barak’s election. The subsequent police investigation sought to prove that Barak’s campaign had coordinated with the NGOs, but it was thwarted by the fact that Barak’s senior campaign staff – including then-Cabinet Secretary Isaac Herzog, today head of the Zionist Camp ticket – exercised their right to remain silent. Lacking evidence of a conspiracy, Rubinstein closed the case.

So far, the V15 affair seems like a very pale imitation of its elder sister. The Barak NGOs case was closed due to lack of evidence. In the V15 case, there currently isn’t enough evidence even to justify opening an investigation.

To justify a police probe, it would be necessary to show, say, that the NGOs in question were set up suspiciously close to the election, which might indicate that they were merely a vehicle for campaign spending. It would also be necessary to show that they got their funding with help from senior officials of the party they are ostensibly supporting, which would constitute prima facie evidence that the NGOs were serving as a source of illicit campaign funds.

It’s also far from clear that an NGO could violate the law by running a campaign aimed solely at unseating Netanyahu rather than at electing Zionist Camp.

No law forbids NGOs to accept donations from corporations or foreign nationals, nor does any law bar NGOs from engaging in political activity. Thus for an NGO to accept foreign funding and engage in political activity that benefits a particular party wouldn’t in itself be illegal. An investigation would be justified only if there’s evidence that the NGO coordinated its campaign with the party, or that the party helped the NGO secure funding.

Any other interpretation of the law might raise some troubling claims. One could, for instance, argue that it’s violated by the existence of a newspaper that consistently supports the prime minister and his party, but is owned by a foreign businessman who even meets with the premier from time to time to coordinate positions.