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For U.S. Jews, Fewer Chances to Get Involved in Israel’s Elections

January 15, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Political consultant James Carville once remarked that campaigning in Israel wasn’t unlike campaigning in America: It’s still about Jewish money, he joked.

But the American consultants who have advised candidates in Israel’s recent elections largely are absent this time around.

So, too, are American Jewish activists.

American Jews have gotten involved in Israeli elections for the last 20 years, and particularly in the last decade — helping candidates Yitzhak Rabin, Benjamin Netanyahu, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak, according to Steve Rabinowitz, a former Clinton White House press aide and unpaid adviser to the Labor Party for nearly 10 years.

American involvement peaked in the Barak-Netanyahu contest of May 1999, Rabinowitz said. Clinton spin doctors Carville, Stanley Greenberg and Robert Shrum advised Barak’s campaign, while Republican strategist Arthur Finkelstein devised Netanyahu’s game plan.

But as scandals related to overseas donations have rocked this and the last election, Israeli candidates have become wary of soliciting foreign contributions — which are illegal under Israeli law once the election date has been determined.

Only Finkelstein, who has worked for Netanyahu in two campaigns and for Sharon in 2001, is involved in the campaign for the Jan. 28 elections, again helping Sharon.

Finkelstein did not return JTA’s phone calls. But according to Rabinowitz, Finkelstein’s “involvement is considerably less than it was in the” Netanyahu years, but “more than people thought it would be this cycle.”

Carville’s international consulting group, GCS, was hired by former Labor Party Chairman Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who lost to Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna in the party’s November primary.

Greenberg and Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster who has worked for Netanyahu and Natan Sharansky, have been diverted to another Israel project.

The two are backing a media campaign in America to promote Israel’s democratic values and peacemaking efforts. Sources say that both men fear that partisan involvement in Israel’s election would jeopardize the public relations effort.

For his part, Rabinowitz decided against helping Mitzna, citing the short election cycle and meager payment — and the fact that Labor wasn’t strenuously soliciting his aid anyway.

Meanwhile, would-be contributors or activists from the United States have been discouraged by a combination of factors:

skittishness over scandals relating to foreign financial contributions, which Israeli authorities have investigated more aggressively in recent years;

the struggling U.S. economy, and the fact that U.S. Jews already are donating heavily to the United Jewish Communities’ Israel Emergency Campaign to help Israel weather the Palestinian intifada;

focus on a possible U.S.-led war on Iraq;

shattered hopes for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process;

Israel’s return to a one-vote system from the more “Americanized” direct election of the prime minster, obscuring the process for many; and

a race that, until recently, seemed like a foregone conclusion.

However, Mitzna has roused at least a few American peaceniks.

In Boston, whose Jewish federation has a “sister city” relationship with Haifa, a group hosted a fund-raiser before the Labor primary, raising “in the ballpark of five figures,” one source said.

Others have expressed interest in helping Mitzna’s candidacy, but said there have been few opportunities.

Ken Brociner, a longtime political activist, asked several left-leaning organizations in America how he could help build support for Mitzna, but got few concrete suggestions.

“In my view, the liberal, progressive community in the United States has failed to mount a coordinated coherent effort, however indirect, in support of a campaign that is completely consistent with its values,” he said.

The left-wing group Brit Tzedek, which formed last year, is considering asking its supporters, about 4,000 activists, to donate to two nonpartisan voter mobilization projects in Israel — one coordinated by and targeting Israeli Arabs, and another run by the Coalition of Women for Peace to reach women on issues of social justice.

Donna Spiegelman, a biostatistics professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, sent e-mails to about 5,000 people asking them to contribute to the New Israel Fund and other groups in support of the women’s project. The project has produced 10,000 posters for Israeli cities.

Still, many liberal Jewish organizations that were involved in previous Israeli elections are less active now.

During the 1999 Barak-Netanyahu race, Americans for Peace Now ran a special fund-raising drive that raised some $500,000 for its Israeli counterpart. Peace Now used the money for billboards, bumper stickers and pamphlets.

This election, Peace Now — to which APN contributes about 30 percent of its fund-raising — decided not to mount a special campaign because of the shortened election cycle after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called early elections. The group is continuing its regular activities, such as publicizing government budget allocations to settlements.

“There have been a few people who have called in looking to see how they can help different political parties, but it has not been a flood,” said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director for Americans for Peace Now.

In the February 2001 election for prime minister, the Shefa Fund, which supports liberal causes, subsidized flights so Israelis living in America could return home to vote. But the group plans no such trips this time around.

“Because the prospects for peace seem so distant, many funders are simply staying away,” said Sue Hoffman, who directs the Shefa Fund’s grant-making program.

When Netanyahu was elected prime minister in 1996 by less than a percentage point over Peres, some observers believed that Israelis living abroad who were flown in by groups supporting Netanyahu made the crucial difference.

But this time, American aid to the Likud Party appears similarly limited.

As far as fund-raising goes, “We do none, we have none, we will do none,” said Philip Rosen, chairman of American Friends of Likud.

While Rosen said he has heard of voter mobilization projects sponsored by others in the past, that has changed this time around.

“I’ve heard of none on the right side of the political spectrum,” he said.

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, also said he’s not aware of efforts by the Likud or Israel’s more hawkish parties to fly voters back to Israel or raise funds for the election.

A primary reason for American disengagement is fear of becoming embroiled in financial scandals, along with the fact that Israeli parties are not soliciting American donors. In the past, Israeli authorities investigated allegations of overseas donations for “soft-money” purposes — donations to Israeli nonprofit groups that used the money for political purposes, or payments to American consultants working for Israeli candidates.

While the foreigners’ contributions generally didn’t break any laws at home, they might have breached Israeli laws. And while Israel can’t punish foreigners, the donors may jeopardize the careers of the candidates they’re supporting — and tarnish their own reputations.

Furthermore, “neither Mitzna nor even Sharon enjoys the kinds of financial relationships in America that their predecessors” did, Rabinowitz said.

Sharon already was prominent before becoming Likud leader, and “people were more comfortable providing support without necessarily having befriended him personally,” he said.

As for Mitzna, he “rose to power so quickly and so recently” that he had little opportunity to cultivate relationships.

According to Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, it’s better this way.

“Just as people would not want to see intervention in our own process,” the same is true in Israel, he said. “It distorts the democratic process.”

One U.S. Jewish leader said American Jews are more willing to let Israelis, who are bearing the brunt of the Palestinian intifada, determine their own political destiny.

“You have to be somewhat both respectful and a little humble about what Israelis are going through that we’re not,” the Jewish leader said. “Americans understand that this is a decision for Israelis.”

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