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American Donors to Israeli Parties Draw Back with Sharon out of Picture

March 15, 2006
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American Jewish involvement in Israeli elections is at an ebb, with the shadow of two Sharons — father Ariel and son Omri — hanging heavy over once-eager fund-raisers. The elder Sharon’s decision to split from the Likud Party last year and form the centrist Kadima has led some of Likud’s traditional stateside donors to reconsider whether to fund any party.

The prime minister’s crippling stroke in January removed him from the race, ending the personal relationship that made him one of the country’s most impressive fund-raisers.

Omri Sharon’s guilty plea last year, to charges related to violating Israeli laws on overseas fund-raising, also has inhibited donations, according to those who monitor American political giving to Israeli parties.

Israeli law limits overseas funding for politicians to primary races. For years, those laws have been honored in the breach, but the Israeli government’s renewed seriousness in prosecuting the laws — and the spectacle of the scion of a pioneering family serving time — have given donors here pause.

“Because of the high profile of the Omri Sharon event, people want to stay clear,” said Ken Bob, president of Ameinu, formerly the Labor Zionist Alliance. “People don’t want to damage the image of Israel and the candidates they support.”

The reluctance to get involved financially does not mean American Jews are less invested in the process. At the recent American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in Washington, the heads of the three major Israeli parties running in the March 28 elections gave videolinked speeches to some 5,000 delegates.

Ehud Olmert, Sharon’s successor to helm Kadima, and Labor Party head Amir Peretz got polite applause for their commitment to seek moderate Palestinians for negotiations, despite the landslide victory in Palestinian elections of the terrorist group Hamas. Olmert’s pledge to see a Palestinian state in place by 2010 was met with stony silence.

By contrast, Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu was loudly applauded for pledging never to give up the Jordan Valley and to bring more West Bank settlements inside Israel’s security barrier, essentially annexing more land.

“Wherever your political career takes you, we will be your friend, and we know that you will always be a friend of the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Michael Levin, an AIPAC board member, said after Netanyahu’s address.

Dor Chadash, a group that “builds bridges between young Israeli and American Jews,” is running an online poll on the elections, and earlier this month hosted a forum with party spokesmen at New York’s 92nd Street Y.

“The interest is greater than ever,” said Marvin Lender, a Connecticut entrepreneur who is close to Olmert and Shimon Peres, the No. 2 Kadima candidate. “But I don’t see the level of fund-raising that I’ve seen in the past.”

The result, say those who have been involved in earlier campaigns, is that one sure sign of Israel’s election season — flocks of Israeli politicos fluttering through New York’s finest hotels and eateries — is going the way of the dodo.

“I don’t see the same intensity and the same fire,” said Ronn Torossian, a New York publicist who has represented Likud politicians in the past. “I haven’t found politicians coming here as quickly as last time.”

Lender said Israeli politicians are more focused than ever on winning every vote they can in what is bound to be a hard-fought election.

“They’re spending an enormous amount of time campaigning,” said Lender, chairman of the Israel Policy Forum, a group that advocates greater U.S. engagement in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. “I think it’s a good thing.”

Because overseas funding of Israeli politicians is limited to primary races, fund-raising on this side of the Atlantic wrapped up in the fall, at least formally.

“There is very limited if any contact with the U.S. at the moment,” said Maya Jacobs, a spokeswoman for Kadima. “We are not soliciting money at all, there is still no ‘Kadima Friends of’ abroad, and we are focusing only on the audience within Israel that is eligible to vote.”

Others say fund-raising for the three major parties is still going on.

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, said representatives of Likud and Kadima have approached people in his circle, who traditionally are Likud supporters. Unlike previous elections, however, the leaders themselves have not made personal appearances in American homes.

“Not Olmert and Bibi,” Klein said, using Netanyahu’s nickname, “but their surrogates are here raising funds. They’ve contacted people for parlor meetings.”

Klein said the people he knows have tended to rebuff Kadima overtures, angry at the abandonment of “Land of Israel” ideology by former Likud stalwarts such as Olmert.

” ‘We don’t support people, we support policies,’ is what they’re saying,” Klein said.

Torossian suggested Sharon’s absence was also a factor. Last year, Torossian said, the mythic Israeli warrior and statesman was able to convince American Jewish hawks to back his support for land concessions. Ultimately, many Likud supporters backed Sharon’s plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and evacuate settlers there.

“Toward the end people were saying, ‘If Arik is saying it’s okay, it’s okay,’ ” Torossian said, using Sharon’s nickname. “It’s all about personal relationships. As much as people write checks to parties, they write checks to people.”

While the fund-raising has diminished, it hasn’t disappeared entirely, he said.

“There are hotels and restaurants in New York where you will see Cabinet and Knesset members every day of the week and get more access than in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem,” Torossian said.

Some Americans work around the stringent laws by providing pro-bono services, for instance polling for a particular party.

“People volunteer services, but that’s very different than raising cash,” said Jerry Goodman, executive director for the National Committee for Labor Israel.

One Boston-based American is contributing more than just cash to the election: He’s got the No. 3 spot on a list in the elections.

Yosef Abramowitz, a founder of the Jewish Family and Life publications, is campaigning long-distance for Atid Echad, an immigrant rights and education advocacy party — and the first Israeli party to be headed by an Ethiopian, Avraham Negusa.

“Israelis essentially continue to throw away their votes” on security issues “while ignoring the most pressing issues where every vote could actually count: education, aliyah, klitah,” or immigrant absorption, “and social justice,” Abramowitz writes on his Web site,

Abramowitz, who has Israeli citizenship, has not said whether he would move his family of seven to Israel if he wins a Knesset seat.

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