Comptroller to probe new Meretz leader for consulting firebrand adviser

Amid mounting criticism, Tamar Zandberg says ‘it may have been a mistake’ to contact Moshe Klughaft during campaign

Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg attends a hearing at the High Court of Justice in Jerusalem about public transportation on Shabbat on September 11, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg attends a hearing at the High Court of Justice in Jerusalem about public transportation on Shabbat on September 11, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

State Comptroller Yosef Shapira is set to probe the newly elected leader of the left-wing Meretz party for consulting with a firebrand political adviser without updating authorities.

Tamar Zandberg said on Sunday morning it may have been a mistake to consult with Moshe Klughaft, who was previously behind corrosive campaigns against left-wing NGOs and activists, adding that she hadn’t employed him in her campaign to chair the party.

But Zandberg didn’t disclose her consultation with Klughaft with authorities in real time, as required by law, meaning that his unpaid advice could be considered an undeclared donation to a political party. Shapira will reportedly include the consultation in his upcoming periodical probe.

Responding after she appeared to have been caught in a lie on Saturday night — when Klughaft confirmed he had worked with her in an interview with Hadashot TV news, contradicting her repeated denials to reporters last week — Zandberg told Army Radio that she “was in contact with him but he didn’t lead” her campaign.

“He didn’t manage the campaign and didn’t set the tone,” she argued, even though Hadashot described the consultation as “intensive.”

Former Jewish Home party strategist Moshe Klughaft (screen capture: Hadashot)

“When I was asked who is employed in the campaign, the answer was that he wasn’t employed,” she said. “It may have been a mistake to be in contact with him in a campaign that was positive and optimistic. Everyone saw my campaign.”

Adding that she had no intention of resigning over the affair, Zandberg charged that the story had “been blown out of proportion and reached absurd dimensions.”

Klughaft was behind a 2016 campaign “outing” Israeli artists as “foreign agent moles” over their ties with left-wing groups, an initiative he told Hadashot news he regretted, as well as a campaign that portrayed New Israel as a subversive force and went after its president at the time, Naomi Chazan, personally. He has also been credited with significantly boosting the political profiles of hawkish Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked over the past decade.

Across the political aisle, he also worked with former Zionist Union MK Erel Margalit on his failed party bid to lead the left-wing party, highlighting the entrepreneur’s brash style in a series of campaign videos. One widely mocked clip, which saw Margalit yell “Give me back my country, dammit!” earned a parody on “Eretz Nehederet,” Israel’s “Saturday Night Live.”

Zandberg’s involvement with Klughaft was condemned on Saturday night by Zionist Union leader Avi Gabbay, who branded the adviser a “propagandist who is responsible for the polarization of political discourse, [taking it] to a dangerous place.”

“If this is the new Meretz, it would be better if it didn’t pass the electoral threshold,” he said.

State Comptroller Yosef Shapira attends a ceremony in Jerusalem on October 26, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Sunday, Zandberg fired back at Gabbay, saying that “lecturing Meretz is unprecedented hypocrisy. I am proud of my campaign and will not be judged by the Zionist Union.”

Activist Avi Dabush, who ran for Meretz leadership’s before backing out of the race and throwing his weight behind Zandberg, criticized her for consulting with Klughaft, whom he called “one of the worst.”

“He is not only a dirty opponent of the left, but of every Israeli who wants an open and tolerant society,” said Dabush, who worked at the New Israel Fund when Klughaft orchestrated campaigns deriding it as a subversive force.

Zandberg “was wrong to view him as a professional expert who gives advice,” Dabush added in a statement. “I am sure she will fix it. He is using that mistake for a publicity stunt at our expense.”

In an earlier statement on Saturday night, the Meretz party leader conceded Klughaft had offered advice, but stressed he was not part of her campaign in any official capacity.

“During the campaign, there were a number of talented people who offered me advice from their experience,” she said. “One of them was Moshe Klughaft, who initiated the meeting to give me tips as part of his experience in the generational revolution in the Jewish Home party. Contrary to what was said in the report, Klughaft was never employed by the campaign or worked for it.”

Zandberg became the new head of Meretz Thursday night after a resounding victory over rival Avi Buskila, a former head of the Peace Now anti-settlement group, in the party’s first-ever leadership primary. Zandberg won 71 percent of the votes cast compared to 28% for Buskila. Accepting victory in front of a crowd of party loyalists at its headquarters in Tel Aviv, the 41-year-old Zandberg, who has been an MK for Meretz since 2013 and a party activist for many years, said she planned to lead the Israeli left to better days.

Marissa Newman, Raoul Wootliff and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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