A divisive bill that would cap donations to non-governmental organizations advancing political initiatives during elections was finalized by the Knesset House Committee Monday morning, allowing it to proceed to a final plenary vote before becoming law.
The so-called V15 bill, named for an effort aided by a US-funded group that ostensibly tried to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the 2015 national elections, aims to prevent those with means from using political organizations to bypass election funding laws.
While V15 has since been disbanded, MK Yoav Kisch of Likud, who proposed the bill and oversaw its passage as House Committee chair, said Monday that the proposal would prevent its reincarnation, “Darkenu,” from influencing future elections.
“V15 lost in the 2015 elections and Darkenu will lose in the next,” he said after the committee authorized the bill.
In the final version of the bill, contributions larger than NIS 100,000 ($27,000) will have to be reported to the state comptroller and those larger than NIS 400,000 will be subject to fines and possible criminal charges if fraud is suspected.
The bill also calls for restrictions on groups for four specific activities during elections when the cost exceeds NIS 100,000: creating a voter database and documenting political leanings, transporting voters to polling stations based on their political opinions, directly appealing to voters with certain opinions in the three months prior to the election to influence their votes, and launching a publicity campaign during an election aimed at influencing people to vote for or against a particular Knesset list.
The bill would not apply to publicity or ads in the Sheldon Adelson-financed, pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom and other news outlets “that were established at least three months before the election seasons and for which the outlets were not paid.”
The preamble to the bill argues that in the US, election-law loopholes allow wealthy persons to “indirectly finance a party or a candidate irrespective of said candidate’s campaign. This has created a phenomenon where there is no restriction on donors with means from interfering in the election and it has sparked a negative race to raise funds outside the party.”
The bill was advanced “in order to prevent a situation where wealthy donors could exploit their means to influence an election in Israel.”
In November, Kisch said that if the law does not pass, “the next election will be an American [style] election. And the question is whether you want that or not.”
Late last year, the state comptroller cleared the V15 organization of inappropriate political meddling during the 2015 election, which it was accused of by the Likud party.
State Comptroller Yosef Shapira wrote that there was no indication that the group, for which the bill was named, had any connection to any specific political party.
But in July 2016, a US Senate bipartisan inquiry, led by senators Bob Portman (R-Ohio) and Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), found that some $350,000 (NIS 1.3 million) in US government funds given to the OneVoice group were indirectly used to help organize voter outreach efforts of V15.
That probe found no illegal activity in funding the OneVoice group, though its report chided the State Department for having failed to prevent state funds being used, albeit legally and indirectly, to influence an allied country’s internal political process.
Right-wing lawmakers had pointed to the US inquiry to bolster support for the controversial legislation.
The bill will face its final readings in the Knesset plenum after a parliamentary recess which begins this Thursday and will continue until mid-May.
Marissa Newman contributed to this report.