US funds aided 2015 campaign to oust Netanyahu, Senate probe finds
Bipartisan inquiry determines resources that ended up in V15’s hands not illegal, but State Department chided for seeking to influence internal politics of ally
Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.
The US government supported a group that tried to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year to the tune of nearly $350,000, or NIS 1.3 million, a Senate inquiry published Tuesday found, though it cleared the State Department of any wrongdoing.
The bipartisan probe found no illegal activity in funding the OneVoice group, which became the V15 campaign to oust Netanyahu, 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.
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.
After that period, the organizational infrastructure created with these funds was used by V15, a group that actively called on Israel’s to vote for “anyone but Bibi [Netanyahu]” during last year’s general election.
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 for 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 was received the plan said he never reviewed it.
Spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday night the State Department had not had time to study the report closely.
“The report makes it clear that there is no evidence that OneVoice spent any funds to influence the Israeli election,” he added.
The document, authored by Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), 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 any resources built 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.
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.
“One Voice will continue its important work promoting peace and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians,” the statement said.
Yet the report found that US diplomats “failed to take any steps to guard against the risk that OneVoice could engage in political activities using State-funded grassroots campaign infrastructure after the grant period,” the report stated.
“OneVoice Israel’s conduct fully complied with the terms of its agreements with the State Department and governing grant guidelines,” the 30-page report read. “The experience under the OneVoice grants, however, reveals the ease with which recipient organizations can repurpose certain public-diplomacy resources for political activities.”
The State Department can be blamed for failing to predict and protect itself against such occurrences, the investigation stated. OneVoice was open about its previous political activity and about its intention to use the money given to by the government to build an infrastructure that could be used for partisan political activities even after the grant period had elapsed, it added.
“Despite the fact that influencing a foreign election is across a ‘red line’ for US grantees, all of this activity was permissible under Department guidelines and the terms of the grants,” the report concluded.
The V15 campaign, which was ultimately unsuccessful, was dogged by charges during the campaign of being linked to US President Barack Obama and a covert administration effort to push Netanyahu out of office.
Some of those accusation revolved around Jeremy Bird, a former national field director of the Obama campaign who worked for the OneVoice-V15 campaign.
Days after the March 2015 election, a senior Israeli official accused the White House of being directly involved in trying to oust Netanyahu.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told The Times of Israel at the time that “it’s no secret” that the Obama administration attempted to influence the outcome of the election, having been partially motivated by a desire for revenge over Netanyahu’s polarizing speech before Congress earlier that month, which sought to undermine the president’s key foreign policy initiative – a nuclear deal with Iran.
“The White House is driven by three main motives,” the senior official said. “The first is revenge [over the Congress speech]. The second is frustration: It’s no secret that they were involved in an attempt to bring down the Netanyahu government – something that we have clear knowledge of – and failed. The third [motive] is the administration’s attempt to divert attention from the negotiations with Iran to the Palestinian issue.”
Rebecca Shimoni Stoil and Avi Issacharoff contributed to this report.