Menu JTA Search

THE ROAD TO ISRAEL’S ELECTIONS Israeli candidates go for gold in bid for American contributo

WASHINGTON, Feb. 1 (JTA) — Do you want to help make peace the central focus of the upcoming Israeli election? Donate $2,160. Your contribution will put a sign on the side of an Israeli bus for two weeks. For $1,080 you can rent an illuminated sign for two weeks. Too rich for your blood? How about $540 for plastic signs, $144 for posters or $36 for stickers? “Advance the cause of peace in ways that even Israeli political parties cannot,” Americans for Peace Now urged in a Jan. 26 fund-raising solicitation to American Jews announcing the “centerPEACEcampaign.” The request is hardly unique. Across the country, Israelis and their American supporters are making the rounds to raise money from American Jews who seek to influence the outcome of the May 17 elections in Israel. Although Americans for Peace Now is not publicly linking its message to any particular Israeli candidate or party, their effort is widely seen as an attempt to bolster support for Ehud Barak, the Labor Party”s candidate for prime minister. Most of the money raised outside of Israel is pledged behind closed doors. In fact, most of the fund-raisers, donors and those involved in the transfer of money refuse to publicly discuss their activities. Unlike contributors to American political candidates, where donors often seek access as well as influence, most contributors to Israeli candidates are American Jews passionately interested in the future direction of the Jewish state. By the time Israeli voters go to the polls, fund-raising sources predict that millions of dollars will be funneled to Israel through legal contributions to movements such as Americans for Peace Now, which hopes to raise $500,000. Since 1994, Israeli law has banned direct contributions to political parties and their candidates. Money must instead be channeled through organizations in the United States and Israel not specifically linked to a candidate or party. The hurdles have not stopped the candidates. During the 1996 election campaign, Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres spoke at two fund-raisers where $1.7 million was pledged to the Peace Education Fund, one of these non-profit groups. In total, American Jews gave more than $6 million to groups supporting Labor and Likud candidates during the 1996 campaign, according to several sources involved in the fund-raising efforts. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, the No. 2 candidate in Israel”s new centrist party, last week joined the list of Israelis to visit New York seeking money for groups supportive of their campaigns. Both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Barak have also visited the United States to raise money . But some of those who led aggressive fund-raising campaigns in the past say the impact of the money has been exaggerated. “It”s not a great bang for your buck,” said one knowledgeable fund-raising source, who like most of those involved spoke only on the condition of anonymity. “If it were perceived as impactful, you”d have Israelis here every week raising money,” the source said. Indeed, many of those who were instrumental in raising millions during the 1996 campaign for both Labor and Likud are sitting out this year”s race. Although party loyalists predict a record fund-raising year, there is no evidence that the same kind of concerted campaign that existed in 1996 is under way. Because of the ban on direct funding to parties and candidates, American money instead goes “purely to atmospherics,” said one source, downplaying its impact. Party ads on television are paid for through public funding, so the donations generally go to buy newspaper and billboard advertising in Israel and to pay for rallies in support of certain issues rather than candidates. Money also flows into the Israeli system from Russia, where Jewish business tycoons have funded the Russian immigrant rights party, Yisrael Ba”Aliyah, headed by Natan Sharansky, according to sources. Likud is said to get a good chunk of its money from Joseph Gutnick, an Australian supporter of the Lubavitch movement. Although many of the fund-raisers who have solicited the donations have become disillusioned with the lack of impact, American consultants working for the candidates believe that every dollar is crucial. “Who does not want an extra couple of thousand dollars in a close race?” asked one such consultant. Meanwhile, the candidates and their top American supporters are determined to persevere. Shahak is scheduled to return to the United States later this month for another crack at fund raising. In a coup for the still-unnamed party, businessman Daniel Abraham, who has given and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to groups allied with Barak and the Labor Party, is now, according to sources, also backing Shahak”s centrist party, which is headed by Yitzhak Mordechai. While some Barak supporters say Mordechai”s decisive Knesset vote last week supporting the Orthodox position on religious councils would chill Shahak”s fund-raising efforts here, there is no evidence that has happened. Shahak has been reaching out primarily to Reform and Conservative Jews, many of whom oppose the legislation that is aimed at keeping non-Orthodox Jews off the local councils. Last week an Israeli, Erez Levy, living in northern New Jersey hosted Shahak for a $1,000 a plate dinner. A close adviser to Abraham also hosted the former Israeli army chief of staff at a fund-raising luncheon. Abraham, who has made millions running the Slim Fast corporation, is planning another fund-raiser at his Florida home later this month when Shahak is scheduled to be in the state. Past supporters of Likud interests include Dr. Irving Moskowitz and Ronald Lauder, whose nomination to head the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organization has come into question because of his reported ties to Netanyahu. The push for U.S. dollars has put some Jewish groups who oppose the solicitations in the awkward position of hosting the candidates. Last week, just days after urging American Jews to stay out of the Israeli campaign, top officials from the American Jewish Congress hosted Shahak for a reception with the group”s top donors. The Anti-Defamation League also plans to host Shahak later this month in Florida at a conference for their top lay leaders. “Shahak was here on a fund-raising visit, but we were not part of that,” said Phil Baum, AJCongress” executive director. “These are disjunctive events. We are not providing a fund-raising opportunity to him.” However, several sources involved with the election campaign criticized AJCongress and the ADL for “hypocrisy,” saying that an event where a candidate seeking money is introduced to a Jewish group”s top donors is not an innocent policy briefing. Abraham Foxman, the national director of the ADL who has also spoken out against American involvement in the Israeli election, defended his group”s decision to invite Shahak. “We have invited him because he”s a significant person in Israel,” Foxman said, adding that Barak had declined the invitation. When asked if he was facilitating a fund-raising opportunity, Foxman said, “What these people do afterward”” is their business.