Campaign finance scandal hits Israel


JERUSALEM, Jan. 27 (JTA) — Israel’s attorney general has ordered a criminal probe into campaign financing operations by Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s One Israel bloc.

Attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein did not rule out the possibility that Barak himself might be questioned, increasing speculation over whether the inquiry would hobble Israeli-Arab peacemaking efforts.

Rubinstein ordered the probe following the release Thursday of a scathing report by the comptroller, Justice Eliezer Goldberg, on the activities of political parties during the last elections.

While the state comptroller found allegations of widespread campaign financing violations in several parties, Goldberg singled out One Israel and its political leader, Barak, for the severest of the suspected violations.

The state comptroller fined One Israel some $3.2 million, the Center Party, $700,000, and the Likud Party $125,000 for their activities.

According to the report, Barak’s One Israel bloc set up nonprofit organizations to funnel donations for Barak’s prime ministerial campaign against Likud incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu.

Among the alleged violations of these organizations, Goldberg said, was channeling money from abroad, in violation of campaign financing laws.

The report warned that wanton and unsupervised funneling of funds to political campaigns threatened the very core of the governmental system and could be exploited by criminal elements.

Goldberg said that as head of One Israel and its prime ministerial candidate, Barak bore ultimate responsibility for the election campaign. The state comptroller said Barak should have been aware of the organizations, and that the scope of their activities should have set off a “red warning light.”

At the same time, Goldberg left it up to the attorney general to decide whether to pursue a criminal investigation.

“I did not take any position in the criminal area,” he said, but added, “I stated clearly in the report, that the law was broken and this is what now must be before the public to judge.”

Barak countered the state comptroller’s claim by saying he was too busy with the political campaign to be involved in every detail of its operations.

“I hold the state comptroller and the report he has compiled in highest esteem. At the same time, I disagree with it,” Barak said at a news conference Thursday convened to respond to the report.

“I was not familiar with these groups. I was not involved in the fund raising. I was not updated on the details. I was not specifically involved in any of the activities detailed in the report.”

Barak stressed that he had told campaign managers to act in accordance with the law. But he and his supporters have noted that the rules for campaign financing have been unclear since the law for the direct election of the prime minister took effect in 1996.

He said he did not “turn away” from the need to address the issues in the report, as well as the need for legislation “to prevent the repetition of such phenomena.”

In addition to One Israel, the attorney general has ordered criminal investigations for alleged campaign financing violations by four other political parties — the Likud, Center, Israel, Our Home and the fervently Orthodox United Torah Judaism parties.

But the attorney general said he would also probe allegations that One Israel sought to conceal the activities of the groups during the election campaign and later to the state comptroller.

The opposition Likud Party seized upon the report as affirmation of allegations members raised close to and immediately following the elections.

Likud leader Ariel Sharon accused Barak of knowing exactly the system used to raise the funds for the election.

“The prime minister promised during the election campaign trustworthy leadership and changing of the national priorities. He broke his promises,” Sharon said.

But members of Barak’s One Israel party stressed that the state comptroller had explicitly refrained from saying the prime minister had committed a criminal offense.

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