The Get-out-the-vote Effort for Americans in Israel at the Heart of the Netanyahu Corruption Probes

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Netanyahu and Ari Harow, 2009.
Netanyahu and Ari Harow, 2009.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

When American citizens living in Israel dropped their absentee ballots in conveniently-placed boxes for the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections with the assistance of iVoteIsrael, they couldn’t have imagined the get-out-the vote effort would end up at the red-hot center of criminal investigations that could land Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in court.

But, indeed, the mysteriously funded group with the tagline “Voting From Israel Made Easy” that burst onto the scene in 2012, and pushed Americans to vote for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, plays a role in the latest scandal that is rocking Israeli politics. New revelations, furthermore, confirm long-held suspicions that the group, which has consistently claimed to be non-partisan, was in fact set up to help tip key races in favor of Republican candidates at the congressional and presidential levels.

Haaretz revealed Wednesday that in 2010, Ari Harow, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s former bureau chief and chief of staff, received $105,000 as a “consulting fee” from One Jerusalem, an American organization headed by Allen Roth, a conservative activist, the right-hand man of American Jewish billionaire and close personal friend of Benjamin Netanyahu, Ronald Lauder.

One Jerusalem reported to U.S. tax authorities that it had paid Harow $105,000, in accordance with the requirement that such organizations report consultation fees in excess of $100,000. Lauder’s offices in New York were listed as the group’s address.

The sum was paid to Harow the year he left the Prime Minister’s Office and before he returned to Netanyahu’s service as chief of staff in 2013. The fee was relatively large, considering that the entire One Jerusalem budget was $682,000, of which $315,000 was donated to conservative and hawkish organizations.

Then, after Harow received the payment in 2010, One Jerusalem changed its name to Americans for Jerusalem, and spent $1 million funding iVoteIsrael, in an effort to register U.S. voters living in Israel. iVoteIsrael was subsequently among the handful of “political consulting” clients listed by 3H Global in corporate documents Harow filed.

The State Prosecutor’s Office recently reached a plea bargain with Harow, who is suspected of continuing illegally to operate 3H Global while still working in the Prime Minister’s Office, with his interest in the company possibly fictitiously “sold” to wealthy Netanyahu supporters in the United States. According to reports, Harow is expected  to provide details that will help two major police investigations into Netanyahu’s affairs, in exchange for leniency in sentencing in Harow’s own case.

The corporate documents filed by Harow for 3H Global, the company’s small group of clients included iVoteIsrael, Haaretz reported last year.

The clear ties to Republican conservative and pro-settlement Likud circles (Harow has served as head of American Friends of Likud) further confirm suspicions the group has long denied, regarding the underlying motives of iVoteIsrael, which has consistently presented itself as a non-partisan group motivated solely by a desire for American citizens in Israel to vote and remain engaged in U.S. political life, while refusing to reveal its funding sources. Neither iVoteIsrael nor Americans for Jerusalem reveal the names of any board members or staff on their respective websites.

It was in 2012, just a month before the election, that the Sunlight Foundation Reporting Group revealed that the iVoteIsrael parent organization listed the same suite number and office address as the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation in its 2010 corporate tax returns filed in the state of Delaware, and that veteran Republican strategist Nelson Warfield was listed on the organization’s reports as treasurer.

In that race, the group consistently released polls showing that American voters in Israel favored Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney over President Barack Obama by a more than two-to-one margin. It produced slick media campaigns, co-sponsored local debates and sponsored a visit to Israel of Matt Brooks, Executive Director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, and former George W. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer. In a speech during his visit, Fleischer assailed President Obama for “pushing Israel around” and forcing the Jewish state to “make harmful, unwise concessions.”

All the while, the group refused to reveal who stands behind it, citing its status as a registered not-for-profit 501(c)4, which does not require it to reveal its donors, and would not comment on its origins or sources of support.

Marc Zell, the chairman of Republicans Abroad Israel denied any ties, saying“The charge that they’re biased is just silly.”

Elie Pieprz, national director for iVoteIsrael at the time, also denied assertions that people who signed up for ballots with iVoteIsrael ended up on a Republican mailing list and said “the accusation that we’re acting secretly [as Republicans] is problematic and disenfranchising people.”

Pieprz, a Republican activist and Beltway professional before he moved to a West Bank settlement, has subsequently served as director of international affairs for the Yesha Council, which represents West Bank settlements.

In an interview with a podcaster for the Jewish Press, Pieprz said  he believed Israeli-American voters had the potential to influence key congressional districts in places like Brooklyn or South Florida and “have a very significant impact that goes to Israel’s advantage.”

Following the 2012 election, iVoteIsrael claimed to have quadrupled the number of Israelis voting, in comparison to the previous general election, noting an impact specifically in swing states like Florida and Ohio. According to an iVoteIsrael exit poll, 85% voted for Republican candidate Mitt Romney and 15% for the incumbent U.S. President Barack Obama.

In 2016, the organization was far less visible and active than it had been four years earlier, overshadowed by a large-scale pro-Trump GOP effort — whose funding was also unclear and which included an aggressive professional operation to register as many Republican-leaning U.S. citizens as possible and help them vote.

Complaints were rampant. Regarding iVoteIsrael’s 2016 operation, both Republicans and Democrats claimed that voters who registered through the group did not receive their ballots in time to vote, effectively disenfranchising them.

Speaking to Haaretz in late October when he led iVoteIsrael, Eitan Charnoff reiterated to Haaretz that the group was nonpartisan and merely sought “to demonstrate to American politicians that there is a serious constituency here” and that U.S. voters in Israel are “a force to be reckoned with.”

He, too, refused to reveal the group’s funding source.

The one person who has been relatively forthcoming regarding the group’s political leanings is Aron Shaviv, the British Israeli political consultant who was the initial strategic manager for iVoteIsrael, and is today a busy political consultant. Shaviv and Harow were credited in the Israeli media with crafting the strategy that snagged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a crucial group of right-wing voters, helping him emerge victorious in the 2015 election.

Asked who funds the campaign, Shaviv told a journalist in 2012 that iVoteIsrael received funding from conservative figures like “[Sheldon] Adelsons of the world,” he said, explaining it was largely conservative figures connected to the Jewish world and Israel.

In 2016, after the Haaretz revelation that Harow had served as an iVoteIsrael consultant, Shaviv told the Jerusalem Post that Harow was only “marginally involved” in iVoteIsrael.

In a story headlined  “former Netanyahu Aide’s Role in Anti-Obama Effort Downplayed,” Shaviv said that Harow’s “only role was introducing him to some donors,” stressing that “Harow was far-removed from the Prime Minister’s Office at the time and certainly did not take any steps on Netanyahu’s behalf by being involved in the campaign.”

In that interview, Shaviv essentially admitted that the group was encouraging voting with the knowledge that the end result would serve the cause of unseating Obama. “We didn’t need to be partisan, because we knew based on polling, that Israelis would vote overwhelmingly for Romney,” Shaviv said.

Shaviv declined to be interviewed by Haaretz for this story.

Charnoff, who is not longer with iVoteIsrael, had no comment.

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