Israeli Politicians Court American Donors

Netanyahu Leads Pack as U.S. Cash Plays Growing Role

By Nathan Guttman

Published May 30, 2012, issue of June 01, 2012.
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Fundraising by Mofaz, who was born in Iran and came to Israel as a child, was aimed primarily at Jews of Iranian and Sephardic descent in New York and Los Angeles. Mofaz raised a total of $237,000 from American donors this year. Among his big supporters were film producer Meir Teper and members of the Merage family, who are Iranian Jewish food business millionaires.

Livni, on the other hand, drew many prominent Ashkenazi Jewish figures to her side and raised nearly $230,000 in the United States in 2012. Livni’s donors include Canadian-born businessman Charles Bronfman, Slim Fast billionaire S. Daniel Abraham, philanthropist Lynn Schusterman, prominent Obama donor Victor Kovner and former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, who added his $5,000 to Livni’s campaign.

Candidates from the Labor Party, despite the party’s shrinking role in Israel’s political map, still seem to draw a fair amount of support from American donors. Shelly Yachimovich, who won the party’s primary race in September 2011, did so without the help of overseas donors. But other candidates brought in significant donations from American supporters. Isaac Herzog, a popular politician and the son of former Israeli president Chaim Herzog, listed among his donors hedge fund manager and philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, and peace process supporters S. Daniel Abraham, Bagel bakery millionaire Marvin Lender, private equity businessman Peter Joseph and Seymour Reich, a former head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Herzog raised in the United States alone more than $120,000 for his 2011 primary campaign, positioning him among the party’s top spenders. Still, he was not able to make the runoff for party leadership.

Another popular name among American donors was Amram Mitzna, former mayor of Haifa, who finished last in the primary race after raising $45,000 from American Jewish supporters.

Israeli fundraising in America takes different forms, and in many cases it has to do more with personal connections than with ideology. According to an Israeli political activist who asked not to be identified, only a few candidates make a face-to-face pitch to American donors. Most will either ask friends in the United States to serve as surrogates and reach out to donors on their behalf, or will reach out to potential contributors themselves by phone. “There is no system to it,” the activist said, explaining that Israeli political campaigns do not hire fundraising specialists for reaching out to American Jewish donors.

But even without a direct pitch, American Jews know when their help is needed. “Every time an Israeli decides to run for office, he takes a trip to the U.S. to start off,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Foxman recalls attending many such meetings with visiting Israeli politicians seeking support.

Donation lists published by Israel’s State Comptroller reveal that several Jewish American donors provide funding to more than one candidate. Steinhardt has given to Labor’s Herzog and to Uzi Dayan, who ran in the Likud primary; Abraham supported Livni of Kadima while also donating to the campaigns of Labor candidates Herzog and Colette Avital, a former consul general to New York; Stanley Gold, president and CEO of Shamrock Holdings, has given to Livni and also to her party member Shlomo Molla, and Rabbi Brian Lurie, former head of San Francisco’s Jewish federation, donated to Livni and Herzog, and to Labor’s Avishay Braverman. “I admire and respect the three of them,” Lurie told the Forward in an interview.

These foreign donations to Israeli political parties and candidates have drawn negative attention over the years. In the past they were used even for national elections, thanks to legal loopholes that enabled candidates to raise foreign cash while avoiding public scrutiny. Major overseas donors have been known to bankroll Israeli leaders, from Ariel Sharon to Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu. Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert is currently standing trial for allegedly receiving illegal cash donations in envelopes from New York businessman Morris Talansky.

Restrictions governing campaign donations have been tightened in recent years, however, putting limits on overseas fundraising and requiring full disclosure. “I’ve always been concerned about the possibility that one or two people will be in a position to buy Israeli elections with their donations,” Foxman said. But the new regulations, with their limits on donations and transparency requirements, have left him feeling more comfortable.

Lurie, who now serves as vice president of the New Israel Fund, said he does not see a problem with American Jews choosing to support certain candidates in Israel. “It’s part of my connection to the Jewish state,” he said. “You might say I am a citizen at large.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com


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