Politics: Could foreigners determine our next PM?

Israeli law permits non-Israelis to contribute funds to party leadership candidates.

sharon, AIPAC 298.88 (photo credit: GPO [file])
sharon, AIPAC 298.88
(photo credit: GPO [file])
Do you want to help decide who Israel's next prime minister will be?

If you're an Israeli citizen, all you have to do is vote on election day. Bills have been raised in the Knesset several times that would have allowed Diaspora Jews - or at least Israelis living abroad - to vote by absentee ballot, but they have never come close to passing.

But whether or not you are Israeli, you can still have an impact by contributing to one of the candidates for prime minister ahead of the next general election, which is set for November 7, 2006. Israeli law does not distinguish between Israeli citizens and foreigners when it comes to campaign contributions.

Likud legal adviser Eitan Haberman distributed fund-raising guidelines on Sunday to the three candidates for the party's leadership, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and Likud rebel leader Uzi Landau. Similar guidelines apply to the four candidates in the November 9 Labor primary.

According to Haberman's guidelines, the Likud leadership candidates can currently receive unlimited contributions from anyone except corporations, because the race does not technically begin until two weeks after the party central committee sets a date for the primary, which it decided against doing last month.

Once the date is set for the primary, which can be held no later than April, each candidate will be limited to accepting NIS 36,472 ($7894) per contributor. The candidates are already limited now in how much they can spend on the campaign - whether from donations or their personal wealth - to a ceiling of NIS 1,821,933 ($394,357).

Questions about fund-raising limits were raised when Sears heiress Nina Rosenwald hosted a September 19 fund-raiser for Sharon in her Manhattan apartment, at which contributors were asked to donate $10,000. Attorney-General Menachem Mazuz is still probing whether Sharon violated the law by raising the funds, which were allegedly laundered through a Brooklyn yeshiva.

The scandal sparked a public debate over whether it is legitimate to allow people who live abroad to contribute to Israeli candidates. Ma'ariv suggested that it was "hutzpa" that an American living in Miami could help overthrow Israel's prime minister.

But the people in charge of raising money for the Likud leadership candidates said they saw nothing wrong with American Jews having an impact on the race.

"Contributions from Jews abroad should be welcomed because it helps them maintain a connection and it shows that they care about what is going on here," said Ra'anan Levy, the chief of staff of Landau's campaign. "Whatever problems there are in raising money from Jews abroad are outweighed by the strengthened connection to Israel's future that they get in return. It's legitimate and everyone does it."

Netanyahu's bureau chief, Yechiel Leiter, said that contributions from abroad also decrease the burden on fund-raising from Israeli businessmen, who are more likely to have special interests that could be problematic.

"It limits interest groups in Israel from getting control over a politician," Leiter said. "Israel means a lot to a lot of people and this gives Jews around the world an opportunity for involvement in the Israeli political process."

Leiter, who is considered an expert in raising money in the United States, called the spending limit "a virtual joke," saying that it barely covers a few newspaper advertisements and a couple of mailings to the 130,000 Likud members. He said that the limit gives incumbent candidates a tremendous edge because they can use their positions to get out their messages to the voters.

Limiting the amount that candidates can raise from an individual donor forces the candidates to raise funds from dozens of small contributors instead of a few heavy hitters. Netanyahu has gotten support in the past from American millionaire Ronald Lauder, Netanyahu and Sharon have received donations from American Jewish billionaire Ira Rennert, and Landau was hosted in Miami Beach last week by millionaire Irving Moskowitz.

Netanyahu is expected to visit the US on a fund-raising trip next month and Sharon raised a significant amount of money at the dinner in New York, but so far, Landau has been the candidate most active in fund-raising. Landau has already been to the US on three fund-raising trips, visiting New York, New Jersey, Florida and Washington, DC.

Levy said that Landau has received backing from a lot of former Sharon and Netanyahu supporters who respect him for his consistent political positions, and his clean reputation.

Leiter and Levy both criticized Sharon for continuing to employ a fund-raiser in America named Yoram Oren, who has been implicated in Sharon's Cyril Kern and non-profit organizations fund-raising scandals. In MK Omri Sharon's indictment, Mazuz named Oren as a suspect who will be investigated later.

Oren reportedly won't set foot in Israel because he is afraid of being arrested, but he attended two events with Sharon in New York - the Rosenwald meal and another dinner hosted by Rennert. For fund-raising, Landau employs Yoram Ettinger, a Jerusalem-based consultant on US-Israel relations and a former diplomat who served at Israel's embassy in Washington and as consul-general in Houston.

Ahead of the Likud central committee vote on moving up the primary, the candidates were briefly under pressure to make sure that they had their fund-raising sources in line ahead of a potential race. That pressure is expected to heat up again over the next few months.

It is no wonder that the visit of a delegation from American Friends of the Likud that is set for mid-November has attracted significant attention from Likud candidates. The group of potential donors will be meeting with Netanyahu and Landau and they have asked for a meeting with Sharon. They are also expected to meet with Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Education Minister Limor Livnat, former minister Natan Sharansky and MKs Yuval Steinitz, Michael Ratzon and Gilad Erdan.

"Fundraising is about building a relationship with potential contributors," Levy said. "It's not easy. Sometimes some you win and sometimes you lose."