For wealthy Americans these days, appeals for political contributions from candidates, party committees and now from super PACs seem never-ending. But for wealthy American Jews involved with Israel, there is, increasingly, yet one more hand outstretched, from abroad, seeking political largesse.
Israeli candidates, vying for seats in the Knesset, the country’s parliament, have found a reliable funding base in American Jews willing to add their dollars to the pile of shekels fueling primary races in Israel’s major political parties.
Recent primary competitions in the ruling Likud party and its new coalition partner, Kadima, have brought in more than $500,000 from American supporters trying to help out the leading candidates in each party. And while these sums may seem minor by American standards, they are significant for politicians in Israel.
“Primaries are an expensive business, and any money you can raise overseas is very important,” said Avraham Diskin, a political science professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Diskin explained that since primary elections were introduced into Israel’s political system (in the late 1970s in small parties and in the 1990s for major parties) campaign costs have been on the rise. Over time this has generated an increasing need to reach political donors. “This is way more significant than it was in the past,” Diskin said.
Israeli campaign finance laws strictly regulate donations in national elections and allow contributions from Israeli citizens only.
In primary races, however, candidates competing to win a high place on their party’s Knesset election list may raise money overseas from noncitizens so long as these donations are promptly reported to the State Comptroller. This is where close ties to deep-pocketed American Jews can make a difference. Money raised in the United States helps candidates fund primary organizing and advertising, although costly TV ads are not used in internal Israeli party contests.
Leading the pack of Israeli politicians supported by American donors is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in the run-up to the Likud’s January 31 primaries raised more than $300,000 in the United States. Netanyahu enjoys not only his stature as sitting prime minister, but also a strong base of support cultivated over decades of reaching out to American Jews, dating back to his tenure in New York as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in the mid-1980s.
Standing out among Netanyahu’s supporters in the recent primary elections cycle are members of the Florida-based Falic family, who made their fortune in the duty free retail business. Falic family members, who are active as lay leaders in Jewish groups including WIZO-USA and Friends of Israel Defense Forces, are responsible for $44,000 of Netanyahu’s war chest. Mark Tanenbaum of Miami Beach, an activist in the local Jewish federation and former member of the Tel Aviv University board of governors, and Eliot Lauer, a New York lawyer who is representing jailed Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, are also among Netanyahu’s top U.S. donors.
The large sums raised in the United States were probably not necessary; Netanyahu easily won the Likud primary race by a 3-1 ratio. His only rival for the party’s leadership, ultra-hard-liner Moshe Feiglin, was able to raise only $20,000 from American supporters, most of them residing in Orthodox neighborhoods.
In the Kadima party, a close primary race earlier this spring between Knesset members Tzipi Livni and Shaul Mofaz sent both candidates looking for support overseas to fund their battle for leadership of what was seen at the time as Israel’s main alternative to the Netanyahu government. The elections, held on March 28, crowned Mofaz head of the party, and he quickly moved to join Netanyahu’s coalition.