Is Obama’s Shadow Diplomacy Meddling in the Israeli Elections to Defeat Netanyahu?

February 3, 2020

4 min read

Trump and Netanyahu are close political allies with common interests but in the Middle Eastern adage of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” the two world leaders are also joined by their enemies who are actively working to unseat both of them. Though many claim the Democratic party has turned anti-Israel, a review of Democrat presidents reveals that it is more accurate to define the party by its policies against one side of Israeli politics.

It was uncovered last week that Joel Benenson, a top campaign strategist for Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s political rival in the upcoming election, made tweets comparing Trump to Hitler. Following a similar revelation about Gantz’s advisor, Ronen Tzur, Benenson was the second Gantz aid who was discovered to be anti-Trump. In the case of Benenson, this is hardly surprising as Benenson was the chief strategist for Hillary Clinton when she ran against Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign. 

In the strange world of politics, Benenson was also a strategist for Barack Obama in his successful campaign against Clinton in 2008 and again when Obama defeated Mitt Romney in 2012. Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign drew heavily from the ranks of the same Obama team that helped defeat her but Benenson’s involvement begs the question of why and how U.S. campaign veterans suddenly appear in prominent positions in the Israeli elections.

It should be noted that in September, Benenson used his U.S. connections to leak a false story to Politico claiming Netanyahu’s government had spied against the White House. 

The Democrat Party has a long history of meddling in Israeli elections and, more specifically, working against the Likud party. In the 2015 elections, a grassroots Israeli political group called V15 (Victory 2015) campaign focused on preventing Netanyahu’s reelection. Their efforts were ineffective and garnered little attention until they were adopted by One Voice. One VOice provided significant financial support and overnight, V15 went from a neighborhood campaign to opening at least ten offices all over Israel. One Voice also brought in Jeremy Bird, a field director in both of President Barack Obama’s winning White House runs.

At the time, Israeli law prohibited large contributions to political parties from foreign sources but since V15 was not a political party, the interference was considered legal. Israeli campaign laws have been modified as a result of what is now considered a loophole.

At the same time, the U.S. State Department initiated a program that brought leaders of Arab communities in Israel to the U.S. to “learn how to vote.” The Arab parties support left-wing coalitions in Israeli governments.

In 2013, the U.S. State Department provided OneVoice Israel and OneVoice Palestine with two grants equaling $349,276. Soon after the end of the grant period, OneVoice began its support of V15.

NGO-Monitor reported that in July 2016, the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, released a report detailing the use of resources developed with State Department funding to advance the V-15 campaign. The subcommittee concluded that One Voice did not directly use U.S. funds for its election campaign or violate its agreement with the U.S. government. However, it sharply criticized the State Department for not properly evaluating One Voice before grant approval and monitoring the organization during the course of the project. The State Department “failed to adequately guard against the risk of OneVoice using government-funded resources for political purposes… [d]espite OneVoice’s previous political activity in the 2013 Israeli election.”

But even before Obama, Democrat presidents worked to influence Israeli elections. In an interview broadcast on Israel’s Channel 10 news in April 2018, former-President Bill Clinton admitted working to help Shimon Peres in his unsuccessful run against Netanyahu in 1996.

It is interesting to note that when Netanyahu addressed Congress in March 2015 in opposition to the Iran deal, then-President Obama opted not to meet with him.

“As a matter of long-standing practice and principle, we do not see heads of state or candidates in close proximity to their elections, so as to avoid the appearance of influencing a democratic election in a foreign country,” the White House stated as an explanation.

Though this may have been an accurate representation of his administration, this clearly was not a platform of the Democrats. In 1996, prime minister Shimon Peres was fighting a close campaign against Netanyahu. Peres was invited by then-President Bill Clinton to the White House on April 30, less than a month ahead of the May 29 elections.

But two can play at that game and just as Gantz enlisted help from the Obama Camp, Netanyahu also imported political help from the U.S. when he called on John McLaughlin, considered one of the key elements in Trump’s 2016 victory. In an interview in November, McLaughlin stated his opinion that the same elements that were employed against Netanyahu in Israel are also working against President Trump. 

During an interview with the radio program “The Cats Roundtable,” McLaughlin said that Obama initiated V15 to prevent the Israeli prime minister from intervening to prevent the Iran deal. McLaughlin also claimed Netanyahu has “been under investigation from the left and been persecuted from the left.”

It was unclear whether he meant that the investigations that have plagued Netanyahu were a product of the Israeli or the American left-wing but, in the interview, McLaughlin suggested they might be the same.

“[There are] a lot of things here that are in common between Prime Minister Netanyahu… and certainly what’s going on in the United States where the same people would basically like to see Donald Trump removed from office because they can’t beat him in the election,” McLaughlin said. 

Indeed, Netanyahu’s close connection with Trump was graphically featured in huge campaign billboards.

It is interesting to note that Dan Shapiro, Obama’s appointee as ambassador to Israel and sworn in by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has remained in the Holy Land. His initial excuse was personal. He wanted his children to finish their schooling. An unwanted byproduct of his extended stay in Israel is the Shapiro is an outspoken critic of Netanyahu, recently claiming that Trump’s proposal for an agreement between the Palestinians and Israel was a ploy to help Netanyahu cope with his legal woes.

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