The report issued this week by the U.S. Senate, according to which U.S. State Department funds were inadvertently funneled to an Israeli organization that tried to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during last year’s election, caused a big ruckus on both sides of the Atlantic.
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It really shouldn’t have. First, because there was nothing there: The report, issued by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, shows that in 2013 the State Department gave $349,000 for a pro-peace project by the OneVoice Movement – a private organization founded by businessman Daniel Lubetzky that tries to push public opinion in Israel and Palestine in the direction of a two-state solution. During that time, Secretary of State John Kerry was still trying to renew the peace process.
Once the Kerry initiative failed in 2014, some of the resources that were developed thanks to State Department funds, mostly OneVoice’s database and social media operation, were given to V15, an anti-Netanyahu campaign that was backed by OneVoice. Due to simple negligence, no one in the State Department noticed.
That’s it. No one in the State Department decided to fund V15, and no deliberate decision was made to try to influence the Israeli election, which took place two years after the original funding was given to OneVoice.
According to the report, OneVoice did inform the State Department about diverting the peace project’s resources to V15, and even sent a memo detailing the strategic reasons for the move. But the State Department staff that received it didn’t even read it and later claimed ignorance. Since the State Department didn’t place any restrictions on how the infrastructure developed with its funding would be used once the original project was done, there was little they could have done anyway.
The second reason why this shouldn’t have raised many eyebrows is that a report that shows foreign money influences Israeli politics is not exactly news by now. Foreign nations and nationals have been influencing Israeli politics for a very long time.
Whether it’s foreign billionaires like Sheldon Adelson or the Austrian Martin Schlaff backing Israeli politicians like Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, European governments trying to steer Israel’s political discourse in the direction of a two-state solution, evangelical Christians donating to right-wing organizations, or Qatar making nice to Arab-Israeli Knesset Members, Israeli politics has long been beset with interference by foreign tycoons and nations.
Israel is a small state with some global significance, and, like many other small states with global significance, meddling by foreign powers and interests is intrinsic to its politics. In recent years, this has become even more pronounced, as Israeli politicians started receiving more and more contributions from foreign donors.
A manufactured scandal
Nevertheless, the Senate report caused a scandal. The Israeli right was outraged and decried “foreign meddling” in Israel’s political system. Several right-wing MKs are currently promoting a “V15 bill” to restrict political-campaign financing by NGOs.
This week, the hugely controversial “NGO bill” – which requires NGOs that receive more than half their funding from foreign governments to publicly state this in all their dealings with governmental organizations – was also approved by the Knesset. The bill is bluntly aimed at human-rights organizations and left-wing NGOs.
Writing in Israel Hayom, former diplomat Elliott Abrams decried U.S. “meddling” in Israeli politics. “Netanyahu opposed Obama’s Iran deal. For this he was accused of meddling in American politics. What did the Obama administration do? It funded a campaign to get Netanyahu thrown out of office,” Abrams wrote.
Fun fact: Israel Hayom is a freebie daily newspaper funded by the Adelson family with the sole purpose of promoting Benjamin Netanyahu’s agenda, to the extent that even right-wing politicians have previously referred to it as “Pravda.”
That the Israeli right wing is raising a stink over V15 should surprise no one. They did the same thing in 2015 when Netanyahu and Likud induced panic over the “millions of dollars poured into funding the campaign to bring down Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud” in order to mobilize their voters.
There’s a great deal of hypocrisy in this reaction. In Israeli politics, probably no other politician has relied more on foreign funding than Netanyahu. His friendship with Adelson has benefited him enormously, and in the last Likud primary (in which Netanyahu ran virtually unopposed), all of Netanyahu’s 29 donors were non-Israelis (27 were American).
Israeli law forbids donors who are not eligible to vote in Israel from contributing to election campaigns, but it does permit foreign donations during primaries. In recent years, many Israeli politicians, most of them from the right, have developed a strong dependency on foreign contributions, increasing the influence of big foreign money on Israeli politics.
The common line of defense by Netanyahu and his surrogates is that there’s a difference between private donors like Adelson and Schlaff and foreign governments. The distinction, however, becomes facile once we take into account just how enormously influential Adelson and Schlaff and others have been in recent years, compared to the meager results displayed by left-wing NGOs like OneVoice.
The current right-wing hysteria feels not just recycled but has the air of an artificial scandal. Netanyahu is currently in hot water due to his connection to the French fraudster Arnaud Mimran, recently sentenced to eight years in prison for his part in the so-called “sting of the century.” During the investigation, Mimran claimed he gave Netanyahu $200,000 during his 2009 election campaign. Netanyahu has disputed this, claiming the only money he ever received from Mimran was a $40,000 contribution in 2001, when Netanyahu was temporarily out of politics.
However, Dov Alfon recently reported in Haaretz that Mimran’s testimony and the subsequent court decision contradict Netanyahu’s claim that he last met the Frenchman during a joint vacation in Monaco over a decade ago, and raise the possibility that Netanyahu did receive a donation from Mimran in 2009. (Mimran claims he met Netanyahu in a hotel room in Israel that year.)
Earlier this week, Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mendelblit, confirmed rumors of a new investigation connected to Netanyahu. His office stressed that no criminal probe has been opened, but Israel’s Channel 2 News reported that the investigation is related to potential money transfers allegedly made to Netanyahu by foreign businesspeople.
The developing scandal, and the air of potential malfeasance attached to it, are much more significant than the paltry V15 findings in the Senate report – which might be the exact reason why right wingers were so keen to pump up the report.
After all, what better way to deflect attention from a scandal involving foreign donors than to pin a foreign donor scandal on your rivals?