The state watchdog ruled Tuesday that V15, an American-funded organization seeking to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the last election, acted legally, despite claims to the contrary by government officials.
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In a report, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira ruled that "there was no evidence clearly indicating an organizational relationship between these groups and a political party."
V15 partnered with New York-based group OneVoice – which received State Department funding to promote the peace process – to recruit thousands of volunteers to go door to door during the winter 2015 election campaign. V15, which tried to convince Israelis to vote to change the Likud-led government, was also funded by Jewish-American businessman S. Daniel Abraham.
In July, a U.S. Senate investigative committee found that the State Department had indirectly funded V15 via OneVoice.
According to the panel's report, the State Department in 2013 gave $349,000 to OneVoice's Israeli and Palestinian branches. After the project ended when peace talks foundered in April 2014, OneVoice changed tack. In late 2014, a few weeks after Netanyahu declared a new election, OneVoice gave V15 the database it had developed with State Department funding.
Shapira ruled that "political activities and publications calling for regime change, as well as those calling on people to vote for various political blocs, do not clearly constitute election propaganda" and are thus not a "political contribution" to any specific party "or an illegal contribution" to a nonpartisan group.
Likud called V15 an illegal attempt by the Labor Party and the left to buy their way into the government. Likud criticized left-leaning groups for using funds sent from Europe, the United States and the U.S.-based New Israel Fund.
Shapira also ruled that a right-wing rally at Tel Aviv's Rabin Square two days before the election constituted an illegal donation to right-wing parties. He therefore fined Likud and three other right-wing parties currently in the government: Shas, Habayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu.
Speakers at the rally included the current education minister, Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett, and former MKs Eli Yishai (Shas) and Sharon Gal (Yisrael Beiteinu).
In his report, Shapira also ruled that a left-wing rally on Rabin Square a few days earlier – called Israel Wants Change – was legal because it did not include party officials and therefore could not be considered a campaign donation.
"Although these parties benefited politically in a certain way from their presence at the rally, their participation was purely passive and does not justify the claim that the minor use of the rally's infrastructure was a contribution to these parties," Shapira wrote.
The comptroller also referred to the election coverage by Israel Hayom, a pro-Netanyahu free daily backed by U.S. casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Shapira said he had received complaints that Israel Hayom was serving as a platform for Netanyahu's reelection, and the Knesset would have to address this issue.
"This is an issue that raises the most basic and complex questions regarding freedom of expression, freedom of the press and political propaganda," Shapira wrote.
"A conclusion that a specific newspaper in Israel is advancing the interests of a specific party requires a systematic examination of all the influential newspapers. It requires the development of investigative and research tools outside the purview of the comptroller and his authority under the law," he added.
"The basic result of such a decision – that a certain newspaper constitutes a forbidden contribution to a party – means the newspaper's publication in its current format should be banned. This would drag the comptroller into the newspaper's actions and decisions, which would be precedent-setting for a democratic country."
Shapira fined Habayit Hayehudi 1.85 million shekels ($485,000) for its financial conduct during and before the campaign. He said the party improperly used funding for Bennett’s primary campaign to finance campaign videos and left several expenditures, including for campaign rallies and posters, off its books. Moreover, it did not keep copies of contracts and receipts, making it impossible to determine how much it really spent.
The Arab parties’ Joint List was fined 1.2 million shekels, mainly due to improper financial conduct by Balad, one of the parties in the joint ticket.
Shapira also cited four other parties – Zionist Union, Shas, Yachad and Green Leaf – for improper financial conduct. He said both Zionist Union and Shas, as well as Habayit Hayehudi, all improperly treated as legitimate campaign expenses the large fines they received for hanging campaign posters in violation of municipal bylaws.
Only four parties received a clean bill of health for their campaign: Meretz, United Torah Judaism, Yesh Atid and Kulanu.