(REUTERS/Amir Cohen)

“I turn to the public out of concern that we will not be able to form the government because of the enormous support to them from foreign associations which are giving them tens of millions of dollars.”

— Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking on the eve of the Israeli elections, March 16, 2015

This column has been updated

Netanyahu won such an overwhelming victory in the election that his warning about foreign money aiding his left-leaning opponents might seem misplaced. But that does not mean we should not explore the facts behind his claim that “tens of millions of dollars” were used against him.

In an interview with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell on March 19, Netanyahu pulled back his comment a bit, saying it was “definitely millions of dollars, and I said it looks like it could be tens of millions.” He said he was “concerned about a massive foreign effort, massive foreign money” which he attributed to “big NGOs” (nongovernmental organizations).  He added that he was “trying to get out something [his voters] to counter a foreign-funded effort intended to topple my party.”

On that front, he appears to have succeeded. But what’s his evidence for his claim?

The Facts

Netanyahu’s claims of foreign involvement were not new to Israelis. In recent months, his party, Likud, has made repeated accusations that “leftist” NGOs were illegally getting funds from foreign donors in order to influence the election outcome — claims that were repeatedly denied.

Netanyahu campaign officials provided The Fact Checker with a list of organizations that they said were active in the Israeli elections “with the political goal of replacing Netanyahu as prime minister.” In a statement, the campaign said “the costs of their activities far exceed $10 million.”

Notably, the campaign did not claim that any of this funding came from the U.S. government. Netanyahu, in his election-eve statement, carefully spoke of “foreign associations.”

Among the organizations cited by the campaign:

  • “A Million Hands,” an NGO, organized the massive demonstration “Israel Wants Change.” Netanhayu says it was funded by foreign donors, primarily Daniel Lubetzky and S. Daniel Abraham, and “cost hundreds of thousands of shekels, and its promotion cost hundreds of thousands of shekels more,” the campaign said. (A shekel is worth about 25 cents.) The total cost of the activity of “A Million Hands” to replace Netanyahu was $6 million to $7 million, the campaign asserted, though an article it cited did not contain that figure. (Update: Dror Ben-Ami, co-founder of Million Hands, denied the claims by the Netanyahu campaign. He said in a statement that “the campaign’s total budget, including the rally, was several hundred thousand dollars, only part of which was raised in the U.S.” He said that Million Hands was founded by three Israelis, on a volunteer basis and that “much of the funding was raised from the founders’ own pockets, friends and concerned individuals in Israel.” He added that “we approached U.S. funders; they did not seek us out. In particular, Mr. Lubetzky has never contributed to our campaign.” He also said Million Hands is not affiliated with any political party.)
  • V15 (“Victory 15”), which is tied to a U.S. group called OneVoice and included the involvement of a former top Obama campaign aide. “The activity of V15, and especially its activity on election day, was several million dollars, the overwhelming majority of which came from American donors,” the campaign claimed. A spokesman for OneVoice promised a response, but we have not received one–despite repeated requests, even after the publication of this column.
  • “Commanders for the Security of Israel,” a group of former generals, which the campaign said was funded to the tune of “hundreds of thousands of shekels.” That’s maybe $100,000 to $200,000.
  • Ameinu, another group, sponsored a get-out-the-vote campaign in the Arab community. The campaign cited a fundraising document from December that sought $3 million, but Ameinu president Kenneth Bob said it turned out to be “closer to $2 million.” He said the effort was “nonpartisan” and intended to improve Arab participation. Though he acknowledged that Arabs tend to support left-leaning candidates, he noted that a Druze candidate on the Likud list also benefited from the group’s work.
  • Activities of political strategist Eyal Arad, which the campaign said was funded primarily by American donors and cost “several million dollars.” Arad has denied that claim, shooting back back that in 1994 Netanyahu had offered him a job that would have been funded by a “foreign and unnamed businessman.” (Netanyahu’s campaign denied it.)

The campaign added that “there are many other organizations” dedicated to replacing Netanyahu funded by foreign donors, pointing specifically to the New Israel Fund, which aims for a resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict and doles out about $25 million a year. But the Israel Fund has vehemently denied any funding, directly or indirectly, to pro-peace organizations active in the campaign.

To some extent, this is a debate over policy. Jews from around the world contribute to both left-wing and right-wing organizations in Israel in order to influence the country’s political dialogue; Netanyahu just happens to be focused on the left-wing ones, many of which support a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. Netanyahu’s figures also are open to question, as they are based on estimates that have not been confirmed. And, as you have seen, many of his charges have been denied by the organizations in question.

Gerald Steinberg, president of the NGO Monitor, a right-leaning Israeli group that publicizes the funding of NGOs in Israel, said many of the groups mentioned by the campaign do not file reports with regulatory agencies, making it difficult to determine how much they may have spent in the election. “A reasonable estimate is that these groups injected at least two to three million dollars into the anti-Netanyahu campaign,” he said, referring to V15 and Million Hands.

He said he did not know how the Netanyahu campaign came up with a $6 million to $7 million estimate for Million Hands, or several million dollars for V15. “I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation based on minimal likely costs, including banner ads on popular Web sites, etc., and assumed that they didn’t pay much or anything (pizza and beer) for locals to knock on doors or put up banners,” he said, referring to his estimate of $2 million to $3 million.

But Steinberg also noted that “annual European government support for influential Israeli political NGOs such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, B’Tselem, Peace Now, Gisha, Yesh Din, etc. exceeds $20 million annually,” a figure documented in a report issued by NGO Monitor. “These groups and the officials that lead them were very active in the media campaigns opposing Netanyahu,” he said, causing anger in right-wing circles. But others would argue these are human-rights groups, not political entities.

At times in Israeli politics, the link is very blurry. The pro-peace group B’Tselem gets funding from European governments and is mainly affiliated with the left-leaning party Meretz; its chair Zehava Gal-On (who resigned after a poor showing  in the elections) was once executive director of B’Tselem.

(Update, March 11: B’Tselem spokesperson Sarit Michaeli disputed the characterization as a “pro-peace” group: “B’Tselem’s work is actually monitoring Israeli government policy and its human rights record within the framework of conflict, and though we certainly consider the occupation to be the root cause of human rights abuses in the West Bank, we do not promote a specific blueprint for ending it.” Michaeli also said NGO Monitor is “far from objective, as seen by its failure to ever criticize or highlight the activities of Israeli pro-occupation or settler NGOs. I would argue that it is a government-associated purveyor of smear campaigns designed to discredit Israel’s anti-occupation movement.” She said Steinberg’s comments that human-rights groups were involved in the campaign against Netanyahu are “absurd and opportunistic.”)

Similarly, right-leaning groups receive foreign funding and have links to political parties.

Finally, there is the question of U.S. government involvement. Some U.S. lawmakers have accused the Obama administration of interfering in the election, citing a State Department grant totaling $233,500 to OneVoice. But State says the grant ended in November 2014, and was intended to promote a two-state solution. Yet after lawmakers raised questions, OneVoice registered a new funding entity under a part of the tax code that allows engagement in some political activity.

But Netanyahu has not made this accusation — and if he’s referring to governments, he appears to be talking about the Europeans, not the Americans.

Finally, one should note that Netanyahu is believed to have politically benefited from the efforts of American billionaire Sheldon Adelson. Adelson increased the print run of a free and rabidly pro-Likud newspaper, Israel HaYom, by 70 percent in advance of the elections. The newspaper, the largest in Israel, is believed to lose millions every year.

The Pinocchio Test

Even under Netanyahu’s count, it’s difficult to get much past $10 million when examining groups confirmed to have engaged in election campaigning. Clearly, claiming “tens of millions” appears to be an exaggeration — one that he tried to take back in his NBC interview. He would be on more solid ground to claim “millions,” but the actual number may not be known for a while, if ever.

By adding in the groups backing a peace settlement that are supported by European governments and American donors, Netayahu gets closer to his figure. But, as we noted, the line is very blurry in Israeli politics. Whether all such funds were devoted specifically to the election is debatable. Moreover, Netanyahu opens himself to charges of hypocrisy given the in-kind support he received from Adelson.

For now, we are going to settle with a Two Pinocchio ruling. There is not much evidence of “tens of millions of dollars,” but there is probably enough justify an assertion of “millions” — assuming one does not balance that against the help Netanyahu received from his own foreign billionaire.

Two Pinocchios

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