U.S. donors give generously to Israeli candidates


LOS ANGELES, Feb. 27 (JTA) — American donors have poured $10 million to $15 million into each of the last two Israeli elections, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The estimate of the amounts, apparently made through campaign contributions or through nonprofit organizations that directly or indirectly support a candidate or political party, was cited in a front-page article in last Friday’s issues of the Times.

The article’s publication came after Israel’s state comptroller fined Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s One Israel coalition $3.2 million for campaign finance violations. No American donors have yet to be implicated in those violations.

Israeli elections are heavily subsidized by the country’s taxpayers and private campaign contributions are governed by tight restrictions. The laws ban any direct donations from foreigners, as well as from any “commercial entity.”

Israeli citizens can make a maximum contribution of $400 in a single year to a single party.

But as in the United States, such legal restrictions are more often honored in the breach than in the observance.

As its primary case in point, the Times reported on a private reception, given by television mogul Haim Saban at his Beverly Hills home last March 25. Ehud Barak, then running for prime minister as head of the Labor Party and One Israel coalition, was the guest of honor.

At the reception, first reported by JTA last March, some 30 guests contributed $10,000 each. Saban promised in the invitation that he would match all donations, bringing the estimated take for the evening to $600,000.

Barak gave a wide-ranging talk on Middle East developments but did not directly solicit funds, according to participants.

“It was a pretty typical campaign speech, but there was no price tag on it,” the Times quoted one guest as saying. “He asked for vague support. It was clear that he was running for office.”

A Barak spokesman in Jerusalem declined to comment on the reception, adding only that the prime minister stood by his earlier statement that he was not involved in raising money.

Guests were instructed to make out their checks to the Shefa Fund, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit tax-exempt foundation that supports liberal and pro-peace causes, primarily in Israel.

Last year, the Shefa Fund was one of the main backers of KesherUSA, which describes itself as a “nonpartisan, get-out-the-vote” project to fly Israelis living in the United States and Europe back to Israel to vote in the May elections.

It was generally understood that Kesher wanted to subsidize the fares of liberal Israelis abroad to counteract the efforts of a group called Chai L’Yisrael to fly in voters favorable to the Likud and religious parties.

Saban, described in a recent article as a billionaire and “the biggest Israeli player in Hollywood,” declined requests for an interview.

However, the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot recently quoted Saban as saying that he didn’t know where the donations from his fund-raiser went because they were processed by his comptrollers and lawyers.

Menachem Hofnung, a Hebrew University political scientist who helped write Israel’s campaign finance law, told the Times that instances such as this reception are borderline — and typical.

“To ask for contributions that do not go right away to the campaign but help the campaign is against the spirit of the law,” Hofnung said. “Not only did Barak do it, but so did all the major candidates for prime minister.”

Contributions by American citizens to Israeli political campaigns, besides skirting Israeli and possibly U.S. laws, raise even more fundamental concerns.

“The possibilities for abuse are almost unlimited,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “What is at stake is the sovereignty of the Israeli voting public.”

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