Foreigners Taking Over Israeli Democracy

There is no doubt that the ability of foreign nationals to contribute so substantially to primary campaigns undermines the right of Israeli citizens to choose their representatives to the Knesset.

An amazing fact emerged, almost by chance, from reading Chaim Levinson's report in Haaretz last week that was headlined, "Netanyahu and Romney share ideology, donors": Of the 46 people who contributed money to Benjamin Netanyahu for the Likud leadership primary last January, 37 were Americans.

For a long time, there has been an uncomfortable feeling stemming from the fact that a significant number of those who give campaign donations to politicians, especially during the primaries, are not Israeli. But this is the first time it has become clear that the vast majority of Netanyahu's donors in the Likud primary were foreign nationals.

While only Israeli citizens have the right to vote in Knesset elections, foreign nationals can, by virtue of their money, to a large extent determine the identity of the head of the Likud list, and by extension, that of the prime minister as well. This phenomenon exists in other parties too, but this is the first time a case has come to light in which the overwhelming majority of donors were foreign nationals.

I don't have details on the scope of the donations that came from foreigners, but it is clear that most of the money Netanyahu collected - some NIS 1.5 million in all - came from donations by foreign nationals. Or to put in the language of slogans, there is no longer just a nexus between "wealth and government," but between "foreign wealth and government."

Such donations are of course legal nowadays, but we are nevertheless talking about foreigners taking over the Israeli democratic process. Granted, they are all good Jews, and some of them probably also contribute to worthy social objectives in Israel, for which they deserve praise. But this situation expropriates democratic decisions from the hands of Israel's citizens. I know of no similar situation in any other democratic country.

The Knesset should pass a law forbidding people who are not Israeli citizens from contributing money to candidates in the primaries. Of course there are ways to bypass that (through nonprofit organizations and so forth ), but the message must be clear. The trouble is that there's no chance a law of this kind would ever be passed in the Knesset, since candidates from other parties (Kadima is a salient example ) also receive contributions from foreign nationals, though on a less worrisome scale.

Since there is no chance of legislation, it would be appropriate for organizations that fear for the fate of Israeli democracy, such as the Israel Democracy Institute, to take the initiative. They should seriously consider petitioning the Supreme Court - which, in such a case, would have to address something it has never addressed before: the theoretical framework of the meaning of democracy.

There is no doubt that the ability of foreign nationals to contribute so substantially to primary campaigns undermines the right of Israeli citizens to choose their representatives to the Knesset - a right that is enshrined in law. If the Supreme Court is truly concerned about the situation of Israeli democracy, it would find it difficult not to accede to a demand that it defend one of the fundamental principles of democracy: representation of the state's citizens. Such a petition should ask the court to order the attorney general to instruct candidates in the primaries not to accept donations from foreign nationals.

Outsourcing the democratic process turns the process of Knesset elections into a mere farce. It is difficult to prevent foreign nationals from funding a newspaper that supports a particular party or individual, but there have to be tools that will prohibit, or at least severely restrict, their ability to use their wealth and their donations to take control of sovereign decisions by the state's citizens.