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Rubio’s claim that Obama sent his ‘political machine’ to Israel to defeat Netanyahu

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President Obama “can’t say he has businesslike relationship [with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] or that it isn’t personal when his entire political machine, virtually some of the top people, were in Israel, on the ground, trying to defeat Netanyahu, which is unprecedented. …From Jeremy Bird down to others who were deeply and intricately involved in his campaigns in the past, he sent them down there to start to equivalent of a Super PAC to try to oust Netanyahu.”

–Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), radio interview with Hugh Hewitt, March 24, 2015

These are pretty strong words from Sen. Rubio, a presumed 2016 president candidate. He essentially accuses President Obama of sending political operatives to intervene in the Israeli elections. A similar claim was made by John McLaughlin, a GOP political strategist who worked for Netanyahu, who told a New York radio show that “what was not well reported in the American media is that President Obama and his allies were playing in the election to defeat Prime Minister Netanyahu.”

We have previously examined Netanyahu’s claim that “tens of millions” of dollars came from foreign sources in an effort to beat him, which we found was exaggerated. In speaking of “foreign money,” Netanyahu has been careful not to point the finger at Obama, but at European governments.

Is there any basis to Rubio’s claim that Obama sent his “entire political machine” to Israel in an effort to defeat the sitting prime minister?

The Facts

The central piece of evidence is the involvement of a former Obama campaign aide, Jeremy Bird, in helping a group called OneVoice set up an election-related group called “Victory 2015,” or V15. Bird’s involvement was featured in news articles in both the Israeli and U.S. media. Here are some examples:

Haaretz, Jan. 15: “The Obama campaign strategist who could break the Israeli elections wide open.”

New York Times, Feb, 27: “Former Obama Campaign Aide Now Works to Oust Netanyahu

Bird, now with 270 Strategies, was a key architect of Obama’s grass-roots organizing efforts in 2008 and 2012, but he’s hardly Obama’s “entire political machine.” In fact, unlike other campaign aides, Bird never even worked in the Obama White House.

Political strategists, of course, work for new clients once a campaign are over, and there is a long tradition of political aides flocking to Israel and other countries to assist political parties there. For instance, two of Obama’s most senior campaign aides, David Axelrod and Jim Messina, have worked for different sides in the United Kingdom, with Axelrod advising the opposition Labor Party and Messina aiding the sitting prime minister, David Cameron of the Conservative Party.

OneVoice and 270 Strategies insist that Bird’s involvement with V15 represented only an expansion of an existing relationship and did not involve the White House.

“270 Strategies began working with OneVoice Israel in November 2013, long before the elections were even announced and long before V15 existed,” said Payton Knopf, a spokesman for OneVoice.

Netanyahu called new elections on Dec. 2, 2014; on Dec. 15, OneVoice and 270 Strategies expanded their engagement to include V15. Bird was reported to have been in Israel between Jan. 12 and Jan. 16, 2015, but not longer.

“There was no direction or instruction from the White House or anyone else in the Administration about the work 270 Strategies undertook with OneVoice Israel and V15,” said Lynda Tran, a partner who works with Bird. “270 Strategies was honored to be asked by OneVoice Israel and V15 to share best practices in organizing to maximize their impact both online and on the ground during the recent elections. Our relationship with OneVoice goes back more than a year before the election was even called and continues beyond the election.”

Technically, V15 only sought to change the government so it would emerge with a left of center coalition, but in effect that meant ousting Netanyahu. In the Haaretz interview, Bird likened the V15 effort to the Obama campaign.

“It’s not right to do in Israel exactly what we did in the United States, the context is completely different,” admits Bird, who still has some of the Hebrew he learned as a student in Haifa in 1999. But he says the mess in the OneVoice office — many empty cartons from newly purchased equipment — reminds him of Obama headquarters, he says: lots of energy and lot of talent. Israel is an ideal country for a door-knocking campaign because of its relatively small size, Bird says. Israel has very complex politics, a large number of parties and relatively high voter turnout, he says, adding that it’s possible to speak with enough people here to replace the government. “

Netanyahu’s Likud party sought a court injunction against V15, saying it had violated Israeli election law by accepting foreign donations, but it was never able to prove its allegations. (Knopf, we should report, has refused repeatedly to respond to The Fact Checker’s queries about V15’s funding or spending during the campaign.)

[Fact Checker: Netanyahu’s claim that ‘tens of millions’ in foreign money was aimed against him]

As we had noted before, some U.S. lawmakers have accused the Obama administration of interfering in the election, citing a State Department grant totaling $233,500 to the Israel arm of OneVoice. (There was also a separate grant of $155,776 to OneVoice’s Palestinian arm.)

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.

“Staffers who have played significant roles in President Obama’s campaigns were part of an unsuccessful effort to defeat Prime Minister Netanyahu’s party,” said Rubio spokeswoman Brooke Sammon.  “The notion that they would engage in such activity without anyone in the White House knowing about it, or that the White House could not easily have prevented this with one private word, is completely unpersuasive.  This was just one part of an organized campaign to insult and discredit the democratically elected leader of a close ally, designed in part to defeat him at the polls.  This administration’s actions go well beyond a diplomatic spat.  They have pursued a campaign of clear malice toward Israel and its leaders.”

McLaughlin, saying “Jeremy Bird is a huge link,”  pointed to the Haaretz and New York Times articles on Bird as evidence of Obama’s involvement. “Money speaks very loud in politics. The connection is made between U.S. tax-funded nonprofits who at the same time are paying Obama campaign operatives to set up what later became the anti Netanyahu campaign.” He added that “V15 was like a SuperPAC against the PM–unprecedented in Israeli politics.”

But we should note this line in the Times article: “There is no evidence to suggest that Mr. Obama or any of his senior aides had anything to do with the move by his former top campaign official, who has never worked at the White House, to join the effort to defeat Mr. Netanyahu.”

In the radio interview, McLauglin also said the State Department “expedited visas” for Israeli Arab leaders to learn organizing techniques. He pointed to a Washington Free Beacon account of a delegation of Arab-Israeli mayors coming to Washington to “learn about political organizing techniques” via the nonprofit group Givat Haviva.

“It was a clear, very early strategy to fund and organize the anti-Netanyahu campaign, to organize the Israeli Arabs into a single voting bloc against Likud,” he said. “Having been in Israel and seen the impact of their anti-Netanyahu campaign over the past couple months, there’s a lot more that I’d like to see answered.”

The State Department, of course, funds all sorts of democracy efforts. At this point, we cannot really reach a judgment on whether the State Department sought to bolster Arab Israeli participation, via a joint Arab list, as a way to reduce the size of Netanyahu’s coalition. In 2006, The Washington Post disclosed a Bush administration effort to spend $2 million of USAID money in a failed bid to bolster the Palestinian Authority when it faced an election challenge from the radical Islamic group Hamas.

The Pinocchio Test

We see maybe a little bit of smoke but no fire. The burden of the proof rests with the speaker, and as yet there has been no documented evidence that Obama had any involvement in Bird’s association with V15, let alone he “sent” Bird and his “entire political machine” to Israel in an effort to influence the election.

Certainly, Obama would have been happy to see Netanyahu lose—and clearly the reaction to the Netanyahu’s victory suggests the White House is unhappy that Netanyahu won so convincingly. But that does not support Rubio’s conspiracy theories, which as far as we can tell is based on the activities of a single former Obama campaign operative.

On the basis of the existing evidence, Rubio ordinarily would earn Four Pinocchios for his overheated rhetoric. But we are going to keep it at Three for now, given that OneVoice has refused to answer queries about V15’s funding or spending during the campaign. Rubio would do better to pose questions rather than make judgments on incomplete information. After all, sometimes conspiracy theories turn out to be true.

Three Pinocchios

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For more Fact Checks on Obama and Israel:

Fact Checker: Obama and Israel: stalled diplomacy or ‘suspicion and distrust’?

Fact Checker: Understanding Obama’s shift on Israel and the ‘1967 lines’