Right-wing lawmakers pan US ‘intervention’ in Israeli elections

State Department-funded database was used by V15, a group that campaigned to unseat Netanyahu, Senate inquiry finds

A V15 activist puts up a poster calling for a change in government. (screen capture: YouTube/Victory2015)
A V15 activist puts up a poster calling for a change in government. (screen capture: YouTube/Victory2015)

Right-wing Israeli politicians reacted angrily on Wednesday to a US Senate inquiry that found that State Department funds had been indirectly used to organize election campaign efforts to defeat the Likud party and its leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in last year’s election.

The 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 the Israeli V15 organization, which campaigned to unseat Netanyahu ahead of the March 2015 election.

The 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.

Ze’ev Elkin, Likud’s minister of Jerusalem affairs, slammed the “callous intervention in the Israeli democratic process, which only proves the necessity for transparency laws for foreign state funding of political organizations.”

He added: “The people in Israel choose a government that will look after the national and security interests of the citizens of the State of Israel, and not to carry out the dangerous plans that foreign states are trying to arrange for us.”

The inquiry findings “prove conclusively that there was a crude, clear intervention from the US State Department in the internal affairs of Israel,” MK Yoav Kisch (Likud) said in a statement. “This is scandalous, a callous attempt to replace the government of Israel through funding from the US government.”

He vowed to advance his own “V15 bill,” which would restrict the use of foreign funding in Israeli political campaigns.

According to the report, authored by the permanent subcommittee on investigations of the Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, the State Department gave grants totaling $349,276 to One Voice’s Israeli and Palestinian branches “to support peace negotiations” over a 14-month grant period that ended in November 2014.

Posters reading "We are changing the rulers", referring to a change in government in the upcoming Israeli elections, seen at the campaign offices of the grassroots group V15 in Jerusalem on February 9, 2015. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Posters reading ‘We are changing the rulers,’ referring to a change in government in the upcoming Israeli elections, seen at the campaign offices of the grassroots group V15 in Jerusalem on February 9, 2015. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

After that period, the organizational infrastructure created with those funds was used by V15, a group that actively called on Israelis to vote for “anyone but Bibi [Netanyahu]” during last year’s general election.

Nimrod Dweck, one of the founders of V15, said the report “shows clearly that none of these [State Department] funds were used for the movement’s campaign. The campaign was funded by private Israelis and Jews from Israel and abroad.”

MK Tzipi Livni, a senior lawmaker in the opposition Zionist Union party, was laconic about the report on Wednesday.

“That the Americans are checking where the money went is legitimate, and if money was used for something other than what it was intended, that needs to be checked,” she told Israel Radio.

She emphasized that “the Zionist Union had no connection whatsoever to nonprofits that campaigned in the elections. That would have been illegal” under Israeli campaign finance laws.

Netanyahu urged the Knesset to vote to dissolve itself on December 2, 2014, leading to new elections in March of 2015. V15 spent considerable efforts trying to convince Israeli voters that Netanyahu had to be replaced by a candidate from the center-left. Netanyahu’s Likud party and other right-wing groups derided the group at the time for using “foreign funding” to try to unseat him.

OneVoice, V15’s parent organization, did not violate the terms of its State Department grant, the Senate investigation determined. But the campaign infrastructure and resources it had established partially with State Department funds were subsequently used to support V15’s anti-Netanyahu campaign, the probe found.

‘US taxpayer dollars were used to build a campaign infrastructure that was later deployed against the leader of our closest Mideast ally’

“In service of V15, OneVoice deployed its social media platform, which more than doubled during the State Department grant period; used its database of voter contact information, including email addresses… and enlisted its network of trained activists, many of whom were recruited or trained under the grant, to support and recruit for V15,” the inquiry stated.

This “pivot to electoral politics” was part of the strategy OneVoice informed the State Department about in advance, though the US diplomat who received the plan said he never reviewed it.

The document found OneVoice’s actions were not illegal and did not violate the grant agreement it had signed with the State Department, since Foggy Bottom has placed no limits on the post-grant use of any resources made available during the grant period.

However, the State Department should have been alerted by OneVoice’s political activism during the previous Israeli elections, in 2013, the report stated.

Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill (YouTube screenshot)
Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill (YouTube screenshot)

McCaskill stressed that “no wrongdoing” could be found by the administration, though she told Politico that the probe “certainly highlights deficiencies in the Department’s policies that should be addressed in order to best protect taxpayer dollars.”

Portman, the report’s Republican co-author, was harsher in his judgement.

“The State Department ignored warning signs and funded a politically active group in a politically sensitive environment with inadequate safeguards,” he said, according to Politico. “It is completely unacceptable that US taxpayer dollars were used to build a political campaign infrastructure that was deployed — immediately after the grant ended — against the leader of our closest ally in the Middle East.”

In a statement, OneVoice highlighted that the report found no wrongdoing by the group and said that it was “forthright” in reporting its work to the State Department.

“OneVoice will continue its important work promoting peace and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians,” the statement said.

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