State Comptroller Checking Barkat, Margalit, Gabbay Campaigns

Financing in question as three politicians use loophole allowing them to fund campaigns from their own pockets before officially announcing candidacy

MK Erel Margalit (Zionist Union) at a finance committee meeting in the Knesset, in July 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

The State Comptroller’s Office has held hearings for the secretaries general of the political parties that hold primaries, en route to deciding whether to declare the party membership campaigns conducted by three candidates for their party leadership as illegal campaign contributions. The three are Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat of Likud, and Knesset member Erel Margalit and former Environmental Protection Minister Avi Gabbay who are running for the leadership of the Labor party.

Over the past year, the three candidates, all of whom are multi-millionaires, have run campaigns calling on people to join their parties and support them, without ever explicitly saying they were running for a party position. Gabbay and Margalit have since announced they will run for the Labor chairmanship in the July primary, while Barkat has still not revealed his political intentions.

As part of these membership campaigns, the three have each spent their own money on advertising on social networks as well as setting up websites specifically for the campaigns.

All three are exploiting a loophole in the campaign financing law. Because they had not officially announced their candidacies at the time and all the funds came out of their own pockets, they can claim their “membership” campaigns were not “election” campaigns that fall under the strict campaign financing laws.

In February, the head of the election and campaign spending oversight division of the State Comptroller’s Office, Channa Rotem, wrote to the secretaries general of the four parties that hold primaries: Labor, Likud, Habayit Hayehudi and Meretz (which holds its primaries in the party central committee). Rotem said recently that various potential candidates and other groups have been calling on the public to join their parties using various forms of advertising campaigns. While these campaigns say it is to broaden the ranks of party members and increase the money it takes in from dues, when such activities are financed by a party of interest it could seemingly be viewed as a political campaign contribution that must meet all conditions set by law.

Rotem met together with the secretaries general of three of the parties before Passover, with the Likud representative choosing to miss the meeting. The parties presented Rotem with their positions: They are unable to control the campaigns of their candidates and so they should not have any regulatory obligations on the matter.

Rotem said a final decision on the legality of the party membership campaigns of the millionaires will be made soon.

Gabbay’s campaign headquarters said it had not received any questions on the matter, and all his activities were legal and “subject to professional legal advice.”

Barkat’s office said he had not been contacted by the state comptroller on the matter, and all his activities as a member of Likud were according to all the rules and regulations, and followed legal advice on the matter.