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This week, Israel entered campaign season. Parliamentary elections are set for late January. And as politicians raced to plan their campaigns, there's some news about how most Israeli campaign fundraising works. A recent report reveals that most of it happens overseas, especially in the U.S. Sheera Frenkel tells us more from Jerusalem.
SHEERA FRENKEL, BYLINE: 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: Never a dull moment in election season.
FRENKEL: That's Gil Hoffman, political analyst for The Jerusalem Post newspaper. He surveys the cafeteria floor with an expert eye.
HOFFMAN: This is where the politicians, when they have something really important to get across to the press, this is where they do it and where they meet and make whatever political deals they need to get ahead.
FRENKEL: Across the room, snippets of conversations in English can be heard. Many of these individuals are fundraisers who specialize in raising campaign money from abroad. According to a report published last week by Israel's state comptroller's office, more then half of the campaign contributions made to Israeli politicians in the last two years came from outside Israel. Here's Gil Hoffman again.
HOFFMAN: They look for any loophole they can. 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.
FRENKEL: 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 Likud bloc, raised 100 percent of his campaign contributions overseas, mostly in the U.S.
Shelly Yachimovich, leader of the 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 not surprisingly, Diaspora Jews are responsible for the bulk of donations.
EINAT WILF: Should you allow some money to come from individuals abroad? It's not ideal. I would say that the vast majority comes from Jews abroad, and that reflects in a sense - I don't know - call it a sense of solidarity, a sense of involvement of the Jewish community in what happens in Israeli elections.
FRENKEL: 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.
WILF: Americans are trained to give money to politicians. It is in the system. They know that this is how politics work. So when a politician tells them I'm running, they - it makes sense to them to give money. I've had many American Jews offer to help me, and I've told them I don't need it. You know, I'm not - 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're doing.
FRENKEL: Back in the Knesset cafeteria, politicians speculate about the upcoming elections and what surprises may be in store. Analyst Gil Hoffman says that Israeli laws have shown time and again they don't really care where or how their elected officials raise money.
HOFFMAN: Israelis don't care where their politicians get their money from. 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.
FRENKEL: What's more important to Israelis, he says, is that their elected officials have the elbows to get the job done. For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel.
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