The real reason nobody minds that American money deeply influences Israeli politics

February 27, 2015
Israel's PM Netanyahu speaks at a conference, launching the Likud party's campaign in Russian, at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv

Irael’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a conference launching the Likud Party’s campaign in Russian, at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, February 9, 2014. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Controversy continues to swirl  around Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before Congress next week. With less than three weeks until Israelis go to the polls to choose a leader, the country’s relationship with the United States is on the front burner. Netanyahu’s rivals for prime minister have made hay of his chilly relations with the Obama administration and the need for American support. Meanwhile, in the run-up to the March 17 vote, Israeli politicians and journalists have wondered aloud whether U.S. support, in the form of election funding, has given the staunch ally too much influence.

Last month, BuzzFeed reported Netanyahu raised more than 90 percent of his campaign money this cycle in the United States, with more than half of the total coming from just three American families. In the United States, this proportion of foreign funding to support a political campaign would be unthinkable. In Israel, however, raising foreign money, particularly from U.S. donors, isn’t necessarily seen as problematic.

One reason American funding hasn’t raised concerns over political meddling is because Israeli election laws are strict. The total budget for all parties seeking office in the 2015 general election comes to around $51 million combined. By comparison, during the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign, the Obama and Romney campaigns spent more than $1 billion each.

Herzog, who heads the centre-left Zionist Union coalition,  pauses during a briefing with foreign reporters in Jerusalem

Isaac Herzog, who heads the center-left Zionist Union coalition with former cabinet minister Tzipi Livni, at a briefing with foreign reporters in Jerusalem, February 24, 2015. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Despite the media uproar, the grand total of Netanyahu’s U.S. fundraising was just $250,000. All political parties receive state funding to run their campaigns and are prohibited from tapping other funding sources, except very limited private donations from registered voters only. The amount of money each party contesting Israeli elections receives from the state depends on the number of seats it holds in the outgoing parliament. New parties are allocated a fixed grant to pay for their campaigns, which they must pay back if they don’t get elected.

The rules are somewhat slacker in the primaries, where the majority of private funding is raised. During the primaries, candidates get no state funding, so they rely on donors, the majority of whom are foreign. The primary funding rules, though, are still strict. There are, for example, hard caps on how much each candidate can raise from any single donor.

Big money political action committees, or PACs, that invest millions of dollars in U.S. elections are virtually nonexistent in Israel. In addition, nonprofit groups are barred from campaigning for parties or candidates in the general election.

The result is that direct funding for Netanyahu is not viewed as particularly troublesome. But there are concerns over the Americanization of other aspects of Israeli elections.

Leading left-wing and right-wing parties have increasingly taken each other to task for blurring the lines between public and private funding. Netanyahu’s Likud Party recently accused an opposition group of using private donations from the United States to campaign on behalf of the prime minister’s opponents. Netanyahu’s challengers deny having any involvement with the group, and commentators have pointed out that campaigning against the incumbent is not the same, strictly speaking, as campaigning on behalf of any single challenger. The same distinctions are often made in U.S. elections.

Netanyahu’s critics countered by demanding the closure of a ferociously pro-Netanyahu newspaper owned by the prime minister’s key patron, American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, on the grounds it was publishing propaganda disguised as journalism. It’s a charge the Adelson-owned publication frequently levels at its anti-Netanyahu competitors.

The introduction of private American money in these ways helps the internal politics of each country bleed into each other in increasingly partisan ways. While Netanyahu has many reasons to appear before Congress in defiance of President Barack Obama, including the Obama administration conducting nuclear talks with Iran, publicly defying Obama is unlikely to displease Adelson, who is also a major Republican donor.

Despite some unease about the growing sway of foreign dollars, U.S. influence is largely welcomed throughout Israeli society. The United States is by no means seen as a hostile power; it is Israel’s best and biggest ally, and chief supplier of military aid. Worrying about individual American-funded politicians, operating in a thoroughly U.S.-funded state, strikes many Israelis as nonsensical.

There’s little doubt that private American donations are influential in Israeli politics, even if not directly through campaign funding. Last week, a progressive Israeli think tank published an extensive study of the network of ties between evangelical Christian Zionists in the United States and the Israeli right. The American evangelicals support includes: sponsored travel for Israeli members of the Knesset, Israel’s national legislature, and tens of millions of dollars invested in Israeli settlements on the West Bank that are considered illegal under international law.

Such donations show the underlying reason why American money, contributed largely to right-wing causes in Israel, is not seen as a cause for outrage in the country; it is not viewed as the reason for the right’s ideological predominance or its election success. Whether out of fear, out of hate or simply out of habit, there is now a genuine, widespread preference for the right over the left in Israeli politics. Though the gaps between the leading left and right parties appear tantalizingly close at times, with three weeks to go, polls appear to have stabilized with the two major parties running neck and neck.

But if you zoom out, four blocs of Israeli politics emerge: the ideological right, the pragmatic and opportunistic center, the ideological left and the non-Zionist, largely Arab parties. Of these, the ideological left is the smallest.

The reason for this ideological tilt runs far deeper than campaign funds. Israelis don’t trust an ideological left that is still tainted by the failure of the 1990s Israeli-Palestinian peace process and by its association with the increasingly discredited old European Jewish founding elites of the state. These suspicions remain fundamental and seem unlikely to change in the coming elections — with or without American money.

2 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Number of Israeli soldiers who served in Iraq: 0

Number of Israeli soldiers who served in Afghanistan: 0

Number of times per year Netanyahu complains about America not doing enough for him: 438

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

When I was a kid I recall how Kennedy, or any Catholic for that matter, was popularly feared to be an agent of the Vatican. The Vatican never had a unique coherent political philosophy (social attitudes for sure)that ever approached the conflicts of interest the state of Israel has in relation to this country’s politics and especially its defense establishment.

If that state was actually made a 51st state, instead of merely being influenced with US money – the difficulty the Palestinians have with the obnoxious and racist philosophy of Zionism would disappear under the fairer, less discriminatory and even less corrupt laws of this country.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive