Foreign Fingers Should Be Kept Out of Israeli Politics

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset on July 11. Foreign intervention in Israeli politics is a serious issue, Elliott Abrams writes, and one of the main culprits turns out to be the United States. Ronen Zvulun/reuters

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

The Israeli Knesset has just passed a law requiring nongovernmental organizations that receive more than half their budget from foreign governments and organizations to state this publicly. A clamor has arisen, with critics denouncing the new legislation as anti-democratic.

This strikes me as ridiculous, so let's do some hypotheticals. The U.K. is facing the Brexit referendum and the government of France secretly funds pro-Remain groups. Is that fair or democratic?

In the past decade, several states in our country held referenda over same-sex marriage. How would we feel if it turned out groups proposing a "yes" vote had been funded by the government of Sweden? We would feel, as the Brits would feel in my first example, that our internal debate was being thwarted and distorted by foreigners.

That is precisely how the Israeli lawmakers who voted for the new law felt. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the new law will "prevent an absurd situation in which foreign countries meddle in the internal affairs of Israel." He's right.

In Israel, many leftist groups that endlessly attack not only the current government and its policies but the legitimacy of Israel and the conduct of the Israeli Defense Forces have been funded largely by European countries. The new Israeli law does not prevent this and does not interfere with free speech but merely says the financial facts must be stated in all public communications by the recipient Israeli group.

No doubt the net effect will be to undermine the credibility of such groups, or so it seems to me—and presumably to the new law's drafters.

If you learn Monday that the Netherlands loudly denounced Israel in the U.N., and Tuesday that some Israeli group denouncing the government is funded by the Netherlands, you may well put two and two together. In any event, you ought to have the relevant information.

Is this really a problem, though? Is foreign intervention in Israeli politics a serious issue?

You bet, and one of the main culprits turns out to be the United States of America. Politico has a story today headlined "Senate report: State Dept. grant also aided campaign to unseat Netanyahu." Here is more:

A State Department grant intended to rally support for peace between Israel and Palestine also helped set up political infrastructure that was later used for a campaign opposing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2015, according to a bipartisan Senate investigative report released on Tuesday.

The report found no legal wrongdoing by the State Department, since the $349,000 in grants for OneVoice were used to further the Middle East process as intended. But shortly after Netanyahu called an election for 2015, the voter databases constructed with the grant money were activated for Victory 15, an unsuccessful effort to defeat Netanyahu.

Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) each signed off on the investigation, which was conducted by Portman's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. In releasing the report, Portman criticized the State Department for lax oversight and for undermining a U.S. ally.

"The State Department ignored warning signs and funded a politically active group in a politically sensitive environment with inadequate safeguards," Portman said. "It is completely unacceptable that U.S. taxpayer dollars were used to build a political campaign infrastructure that was deployed—immediately after the grant ended—against the leader of our closest ally in the Middle East."

The investigation is notable for its bipartisan sheen. McCaskill highlighted the conclusion that it showed "no wrongdoing" by President Barack Obama's administration but said the report "certainly highlights deficiencies in the Department's policies that should be addressed in order to best protect taxpayer dollars."

"Despite OneVoice's previous political activism in the 2013 Israeli election, the Department failed to take any steps to guard against the risk that OneVoice could engage in political activities using State-funded grassroots campaign infrastructure after the grant period," the report found.

Is it any wonder that Israeli lawmakers on the right passed this law? Not only European governments but our own is in fact doing what Netanyahu denounced: meddling in Israel's politics. The new law calls for transparency and nothing more.

And next time you read about bad feeling between Netanyahu and Obama, remember that bipartisan Senate report. Netanyahu opposed Obama's Iran deal. For this he was accused of meddling in American politics.

What did the Obama administration do? It funded a campaign to get Netanyahu thrown out of office.

Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.