Israeli Leaders Find Generous Donors in U.S.

U.S. Influence
By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 26, 2008

JERUSALEM -- American businessman Morris Talansky has riveted Israel with tales of bankrolling the plush lifestyle of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: the expensive cigars and five-star suites, a fine watch and an Italian vacation.

While most Israelis have been galled at the extent of the alleged corruption, no one has been surprised by the source of the funds. Politicians in Israel have long known that if they want to raise large amounts of money, for whatever reason, they'll find it in the United States.

Foreign donations are banned for general elections, but Israeli leaders routinely get half or more of their campaign contributions for party primaries from overseas, and mostly from American donors.

The fundraising trend is especially pronounced on Israel's political right; politicians who advocate aggressive military action against Iran and Hamas and who maintain an uncompromising stance against ceding land to the Palestinians have typically found generous support for their views in the States.

Former prime minister and Likud Party leader Binyamin Netanyahu, for instance, received approximately $400,000 -- 75 percent of his donations for a 2007 primary -- from U.S. contributors, according to the Israeli comptroller's office. By contrast, Israeli donors accounted for less than 5 percent of reported contributions to Netanyahu, who hopes to return to power if Olmert falls and who has sharply criticized the current government for its willingness to cut deals with Israel's enemies.

Another former prime minister, Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, picked up about a third of his campaign money from donors in the United States. Barak, a driving force behind a recent cease-fire with Hamas who favors negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, received slightly more than half of his donations last year from within Israel.

Financial backing for Israeli politicians is just one dimension of a much broader role here for American supporters, one that includes immigration to Israel, copious philanthropy and long-standing advocacy among American Jews for Zionism.

Talansky has insisted that he received no quid pro quo for the $150,000 he allegedly gave to Olmert over a nearly 15-year period. Talansky, who was cross-examined this week by Olmert's attorneys, has said he simply liked Olmert's right-wing politics and wanted to help him become prime minister.

"Israelis wouldn't do for Olmert what Talansky did for Olmert," said Menachem Hofnung, a political scientist at Hebrew University who specializes in campaign finance. "The important consideration for many American donors is that they can help change Israel in the way that they support. An Israeli businessman, on the other hand, may look at it as an investment. And for an investment, you have to get something in return."

Olmert has acknowledged receiving money from Talansky but has said the funding was purely for political purposes.

Israeli law allows politicians to receive donations from overseas, but until recent rule changes they had not been required to disclose much information about that type of fundraising.

Political observers say that far more cash flows from U.S. shores than anyone knows because of a traditionally weak oversight system and loopholes that have allowed candidates to skirt the law. Instead of using the money to further their careers, some politicians have used it to enhance their own standards of living, Israeli political analysts say.

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