Israeli Politicians Look To U.S. For Campaign Funds

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly Cabinet meeting at his offices in Jerusalem in October. A new report shows that Netanyahu raised more than 90 percent of his campaign money in the United States.

hide captionIsraeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly Cabinet meeting at his offices in Jerusalem in October. A new report shows that Netanyahu raised more than 90 percent of his campaign money in the United States.

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It's midday in the cafeteria of the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, and legislators and their aides are busy wheeling and dealing over lunch.

Gil Hoffman, political analyst for The Jerusalem Post newspaper, surveys the cafeteria floor with an expert's eye.

"Never a dull moment in election season," he says. "This is where the politicians, when there is something really important to get across to the press, this is where they do it; this is where they meet and make whatever political deals they need to get ahead."

Israel has entered its political campaign season with parliamentary elections now set for late January.

As politicians race to plan campaigns, a new report by Israel's state comptroller's office has revealed that more than half of the campaign contributions made to Israeli politicians in the past two years came from outside Israel.

Across the cafeteria, snippets of conversations in English can be heard. Many of these people are fundraisers who specialize in raising campaign money from abroad.

"They look for any loophole they can," Hoffman says. "And if they can get away with doing most of their fundraising abroad or doing it before the election period begins ... whatever they can get away with."

Money Comes From The U.S.

For this new report, each member of the Knesset was asked to give a list of campaign donors and the amounts received. Officials at the state comptroller's office told NPR they are currently in the process of checking and verifying the list, although a quick glance at the figures shows a clear trend.

The report says Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raised more than 90 percent of his campaign money in the United States. Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon, also from Netanyahu's conservative Likud bloc, raised 100 percent of his campaign contributions overseas — mostly in the U.S.

Shelly Yachimovich, leader of the liberal Labor Party, was one of the few politicians to raise all of her money in Israel. Political analysts say she made a point of doing so to prove her domestic credentials.

Einat Wilf, a lawmaker from the Independence Party, says that not surprisingly, diaspora Jews are responsible for the bulk of donations.

"Should you allow some money to come from individuals abroad? It's not ideal," Wilf says. "I would say that the vast majority comes from Jews abroad, and that reflects ... call it a sense of solidarity, a sense of involvement in the Jewish community in what happens in Israeli elections."

Many Americans Prepared To Give

Wilf didn't choose to fundraise in the U.S. herself; her campaign money came entirely from her own personal fortune. But she says she understands Israeli politicians who accept help from often eager American donors.

"Americans are trained to give money to politicians. It is in the system," Wilf says. "They know this is how politics work. So when a politician tells them, 'I'm running,' it makes sense to them to give money. I've had many American Jews offer to help me. And I tell them, 'I don't need it, I'm fine.' But that's their way of saying, 'We want to help you. We want to support you. We like the work that you are doing.' "

Back in the Knesset cafeteria, politicians speculate about the upcoming elections and what surprises may be in store.

Hoffman says that Israelis have shown time and again they don't really care where or how their elected officials raise money.

"Israelis don't care where their politicians get their money from," Hoffman says. "There are politicians that have been convicted of illegal fundraising that are making political comebacks right now, and people don't have any problem with it whatsoever."

What's more important to Israelis, he says, is that their elected officials have the elbows to get the job done.

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