Prominent GOP donors in Israel: Judicial fight keeps us from investing here

Members of Lincoln Club of Orange County delegation are hanging onto their money until independence of judges is assured; they want US presidents engaged in Middle East, Ukraine

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Members of the Lincoln Club of Orange County meet with Economy Minister Nir Barkat, May 2023. (The Lincoln Club of Orange County/Bar Shvo)
Members of the Lincoln Club of Orange County meet with Economy Minister Nir Barkat, May 2023. (The Lincoln Club of Orange County/Bar Shvo)

A group of US businessmen from a prominent conservative political donor club said they are interested in investing in Israeli and regional initiatives, but would not do so until they are comfortable with the result of Israel’s judicial reform.

“It’s a big issue for us,” explained Sammy Sayago, marketing entrepreneur and CEO at WhyW8t LLC. “What’s going on with the judicial branch, and how that [judicial selection] committee is being eliminated, goes down to the core of our ideas of independence of branches.”

Sayago, who spoke to The Times of Israel earlier this week in Jerusalem, was part of a 40-strong delegation from the Lincoln Club of Orange County, a group of politically active donors who wield significant influence in Republican politics.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserted that his coalition’s judicial overhaul plan — shelved in March amid unprecedented protests and economic warnings — would return to the legislative agenda after the passage of the state budget.

One of the government’s proposals is to change the structure of – not eliminate – the committee that selects Supreme Court justices to give more control to elected officials.

“A lot of the rhetoric that’s coming out of Israel doesn’t help too much when it’s not really clear what’s going on,” said Wayne Lindholm, a hotel and property management executive. “We’ve asked questions about what’s going on with the court system.”

Lincoln Club of Orange County board members Wayne Lindholm (L) and Lei Wang (R) in Israel, May 2023. (The Lincoln Club of Orange County/Bar Shvo)

Lindholm, a Lincoln Club board member whose company built a massive Intel facility in Israel, said that he and his colleagues won’t invest in a country unless the rules are clear and contracts are honored.

Entrepreneur Ron Salpeter, the club’s representative in Israel, told The Times of Israel that he was surprised by how adamant the delegation was about the importance of settling the judicial reform.

“They said they would be happy to do business here,” said Salpeter. “But they all said quite pointedly, that they won’t put a dollar here if they are not comfortable with the clear judicial and democratic structure. They were very knowledgeable, they knew what is happening here, they knew how many people were at the demonstrations.”

Supporters of the government’s judicial reform efforts gather in Jerusalem, April 27, 2023. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

“They won’t do business here if they don’t have peace of mind over the legal system and transparency.”

In Israel, the delegation met with Education Minister Yoav Kisch, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, and Finance Minister Nir Barkat from the coalition, as well as opposition party chiefs Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz.

They expressed their concerns over the legal reform fight to Barkat, who told the group, “Don’t worry, we will find a solution based on consensus.”

Members seemed especially taken by Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff and defense minister who addressed the group for an hour at the Peres Center in Tel Aviv.

National Unity party chair MK Benny Gantz gives a press statement in the southern town of Sderot, May 3, 2023. (Flash90)

“They were very impressed by his leadership and the way he spoke,”  said Salpeter.

Positive vibes

The group was almost entirely not Jewish, and most members have not made major investments in Israel. But some are exploring regional projects like tourism and hotel chains in Israel, Jordan, and other Arab countries that have diplomatic ties with Israel.

The Lincoln Club delegation was in Jordan and Egypt before reaching Israel, and made a stop in Ramallah to speak with Palestine Liberation Organization Executive Committee member Ahmed Majdalni.

Though Jordanian, and to a lesser extent Egyptian, officials are often publicly critical of Israel, the group was struck by the way officials like Jordan’s Investment Minister Kholoud Al-Saqqaf spoke about the Jewish state.

Jordanian Minister of Water and Irrigation, Mohammed Al Najer (left) shakes hands with Israel’s outgoing Minister of Environmental Protection, Tamar Zandberg, after signing an agreement to restore the Jordan River at the UN COP27 climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (Bradley D’coutho)

“I was surprised because I actually thought that they were going to be quite negative about it and it wasn’t the case,” said Sayago. “If anything, I felt that they were looking forward to better relationships.”

He said Jordanian officials emphasized Israel’s work in finding solutions for regional water shortages.

“When they talked about that with Israel,” concurred Lindholm, “they were pretty complimentary.”

Foreign policy at the fore

Republican aspirants to the White House have addressed the club as the primary starts to take shape. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis spoke to the group last September, and former Vice President Mike Pence headlined an event in April.

Former US vice president Mike Pence pauses while speaking at the Federalist Society Executive Branch Review conference, Tuesday, April 25, 2023, in Washington. (AP/Alex Brandon)

“Between these two, personally, I really think DeSantis is the future of the Republican party,” said Lei Wang, who represents a major Chinese real estate firm in the US. “But he may not have the chance this time to get the nomination. I still think Trump will get the nomination if Trump does not have any legal issues.”

DeSantis will announce his candidacy on Wednesday night in a conversation with Twitter CEO Elon Musk.

“We want to win, it comes down to at the end of the day,” explained Sayago. “I think Republicans are tired of it. We thought we would take the Senate, we didn’t take it. But I think right now, to be fair, the reality behind it is most of these candidates are being very coy about it because they’re just waiting to see how this works out with Trump because Trump is a hot potato.”

Though there is a marked bipartisan trend in the US to reduce engagement with the Middle East, the Lincoln Club members are working to reverse what they see as a strategic blunder.

“What’s happening with Iran and Saudi Arabia, that’s a big issue for me,” said Sayago of the recent rapprochement between Israel’s archenemy and the Arab kingdom that Netanyahu is working to establish diplomatic ties with.

“I feel personally that the United States needs to step up because Israel is actually at the forefront of anything in our standpoint,” he continued. “In two years, we’re going to have elections. We believe it will be able to take both the Senate and the presidency. We want to make sure that these candidates are aware of what we believe from the business standpoint, and from our welfare, what’s important to us. And foreign affairs is a big deal, even though we have our own problems.”

“We need a politics of foreign affairs, of individuals who understand from our perspective that we care about this,” agreed Lindholm.

They are also challenging the growing voices in the GOP, including from Trump and DeSantis, that are wavering on US support for Ukraine.

Tucker Carlson, host of ‘Tucker Carlson Tonight,’ poses for photos in a Fox News Channel studio on March 2, 2017, in New York. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

“Tucker [Carlson] is saying, get out of Ukraine,” said Lindholm. “And that’s not what most of us stand for in the Lincoln Club.”

“We think the Ukraine war is definitely not an American war, but we have to fight for freedom,” said Wang. “So that is important. If they don’t support Ukraine, the Chinese government can easily go ahead to invade Taiwan in the next two or three years. And the Chinese are wanting to play more and more in the Middle East, and then we already encourage Iran to do some stupid things too. I think we need to deter.”

Sayago promised that the Lincoln Club would continue advocating for presidential candidates to make sure they prioritize a robust US foreign policy and firm support for Israel.

“We have the power of being able to vet these candidates to ensure that at least for face value, they understand that we just can’t be on the sidelines,” he said. “I mean, if Israel were to attack Iran, we should be 100% behind and say, we agree. Got you. There shouldn’t be doubts.”

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