Elkin Blasts US State Dept. Intervention in Israeli Elections

YERUSHALAYIM -
Israeli Minister of Jerusalem Affairs Zeev Elkin arrives to the weekly government conference at PM Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem on June 19, 2016. Photo by Marc Israel Sellem/POOL *** Local Caption *** ישיבת ממשלה זאב אלקין
Minister of Yerushalayim Affairs Ze’ev Elkin arrives to a Cabinet meeting at PM Netanyahu’s office in June. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Minister of Yerushalayim Affairs Ze’ev Elkin on Wednesday blasted the U.S. State Department’s “callous intervention in the Israeli democratic process.”

He was commenting on the findings of a U.S. Senate subcommittee, published on Tuesday, which substantiated allegations that the State Department provided financial support to an NGO that backed a campaign to defeat Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in the 2015 elections.

The bipartisan inquiry, led by Senators Bob Portman (R-Ohio) and Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), found that some $350,000 in U.S. government funds given to the OneVoice group was used to help organize voter outreach efforts of the Israeli V15 organization, which campaigned to unseat Netanyahu ahead of the March 2015 election.

The probe found no illegal activity in funding the OneVoice group, although its report chided the State Department for having failed to prevent state funds from being used, albeit legally and indirectly, to influence an allied country’s internal political process.

“The people in Israel choose a government that will look after the national and security interests of the citizens of the State of Israel, and not to carry out the dangerous plans that foreign states are trying to arrange for us,” Elkin said, adding that the findings of the U.S. Senate Committee only prove the necessity for transparency laws for foreign state funding of political organizations.

The inquiry findings “prove conclusively that there was a crude, clear intervention from the U.S. State Department in the internal affairs of Israel,” MK Yoav Kisch (Likud) said in a statement.

“This is scandalous, a callous attempt to replace the government of Israel through funding from the U.S. government.”

He vowed to advance his own “V15 bill,” which would restrict the use of foreign funding in Israeli political campaigns.

The Senate investigation concluded that “OneVoice used the campaign infrastructure and resources built, in part, with State Department grants funds to support V15. In service of V15, OneVoice deployed its social media platform, which more than doubled during the State Department grant period; used its database of voter contact information, including email addresses, which OVI expanded during the grant period; and enlisted its network of trained activists, many of whom were recruited or trained under the grant, to support and recruit for V15.

“This pivot to electoral politics was consistent with a strategic plan developed by OneVoice leadership and emailed to State Department officials during the grant period. The State Department diplomat who received the plan told the subcommittee that he never reviewed it.”

The subcommittee’s report noted that the State 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.”

Portman, who heads the subcommittee, concluded: “The State Department ignored warning signs and funded a politically active group in a politically sensitive environment with inadequate safeguards. 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.”

However, the subcommittee cleared the White House of any direct involvement in improper disbursements, according to Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who sits on the subcommittee.

While it indicated “no wrongdoing” by President Barack Obama’s administration, it “certainly highlights deficiencies in the State Department’s policies that should be addressed in order to best protect taxpayer dollars,” she said.

In 2015, State Department officials denied any knowledge of OneVoice’s campaign against Netanyahu or any connection between that campaign and its grant funding.

According to the report, authored by the permanent subcommittee on investigations of the Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, the State Department gave grants totaling $349,276 to OneVoice’s Israeli and Palestinian branches “to support peace negotiations” over a 14-month grant period that ended in November 2014.

After that period, the organizational infrastructure created with those funds was used by V15, a group that actively called on Israelis to vote for “anyone but Bibi [Netanyahu]” during last year’s general election.