MARCH 3, 2000 26 ADAR I, 5760
American contributions to Israeli political campaigns are raising concerns
By Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor
American donors have poured $10 million to $15 million into each of the last two Israeli elections through campaign contributions or through nonprofit organizations that directly or indirectly support a candidate or political party.
The estimate, attributed to unnamed "political scientists," is cited in a front page article in the Feb. 25 Los Angeles Times, headlined "U.S. Soil Proves Fertile for Israel Political Campaigns."
As its primary case in point, the Times reported on a private reception, given by television mogul Haim Saban at his Beverly Hills home last March 25. Guest of honor was Ehud Barak, then running for prime minister as head of the Labor Party and One Israel coalition.
At the reception, first reported by The Jewish Journal last April, some 30 guests contributed $10,000 each. Saban promised in the invitation that he would match all donations dollar for dollar, bringing the estimated take for the evening to $600,000.
Barak gave a wide-ranging talk on Middle East developments but did not directly solicit funds, according to participants.
"It was a pretty typical campaign speech, but there was no price tag on it," the Times quoted one guest. "He asked for vague support. It was clear that he was running for office."
Invited guests were instructed to make out their checks to the Shefa Fund, described by the Times as a Philadelphia-based nonprofit tax-exempt foundation, which tends to support liberal and pro-peace causes, primarily in Israel.
Last year, the Shefa Fund was one of the main backers of KesherUSA, self-described as a "nonpartisan get-out-the-vote" project to fly Israelis living in the United States and Europe back to Israel to vote in the May elections.
Contributions to Kesher, besides Shefa, came mainly from individuals sympathetic to the Labor and Centrist parties, Kesher spokesman Udi Behr told The Jewish Journal last year.
It was generally understood that Kesher would subsidize the fares of liberal-oriented Israelis abroad, to counteract the even more intensive and well-financed efforts by Chai L'Ysrael to fly in voters favorable to the Likud and religious parties.
In themselves, the contributions to Shefa and the fly-back project were apparently not illegal, but they benefited Barak's party.
Saban, described in a recent article as a billionaire and "the biggest Israeli player in Hollywood," did not respond to requests for an interview.
However, the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot recently quoted Saban as saying that he didn't know where the donations from his fundraiser went, because they were processed by his comptrollers and lawyers.
The Times article, developed by its correspondent in Israel and two reporters in Los Angeles, stated that a Barak spokesman in Jerusalem declined to comment on the Saban reception, adding only that the prime minister stood by his earlier statement that he was not involved in raising money.
Israeli elections are heavily subsidized by the country's taxpayers and private campaign contributions are governed by tight restrictions. The laws ban any donations from foreigners, as well as from any "commercial entity." Israeli citizens can make a maximum contribution of $400 in a single year to a single party.
But as in the United States, such legal restrictions are more often honored in the breach than in the observance.
Menachem Hofnung, a Hebrew University political scientist, who helped write Israel's campaign finance law, told the Times that instances such as the Saban reception are borderline -- and typical.
"To ask for contributions that do not go right away to the campaign but help the campaign is against the spirit of the law," Hofnung said. "Not only did Barak do it, but so did all the major candidates for prime minister."
A recent report by Israel's state comptroller cracked down hard on numerous campaign finance violations by Israel's major parties and fined Barak's One Israel coalition $3.2 million.
Contributions by American citizens to Israeli political campaigns, besides skirting Israeli and possibly U.S. laws, raise even more fundamental concerns.
"The possibilities for abuse are almost unlimited," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. "What is at stake is the sovereignty of the Israeli voting public."
David Clayman, the American Jewish Congress' director in Israel, observed that "I can think of nothing more corrosive to Israeli democracy than the buying of votes" by non-Israelis.