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Evan Gottesman
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Let’s talk about ‘foreign meddling’ in Israeli politics

Yes, Israeli left-wing causes get money from abroad. You know who else gets money from abroad – and lots of it?
(iStock)
(iStock)

As tensions ratchet up over the planned judicial overhaul, the canard of foreign interference is at the center of Israeli political discourse. Responding to criticism of the proposed judicial reform from US Ambassador Tom Nides, Diaspora Minister Amichai Chikli gave the US envoy a curt order to “mind your own business.” Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested nefarious foreign involvement in the demonstrations. But some of the loudest critics of foreign involvement in Israeli politics are some of its biggest beneficiaries. Meanwhile, far from being the long arm of a foreign conspiracy, the support the US and other governments give Israeli civil society organizations is fairly standard and publicly documented.

While Israeli right-wingers are not shy about tagging their opponents as outside agitators, they clearly understand that money – including contributions from abroad – is a potent force in politics and operate accordingly. The Washington Examiner, a conservative American outlet, recently ran a piece trying to draw a connection between a modest ($15,000) grant from the State Department to an Israeli civil society organization and the ongoing protests against the judicial reform.

Of course, regularly turning out hundreds of thousands of people at demonstrations because of a $15,000 grant would be a return on investment beyond the wildest dreams of even the most ambitious public affairs officer at the US embassy, but more to the point, the vocal opponents of supposed foreign interference in Israeli politics are beneficiaries of outside help themselves. The Kohelet Policy Forum, which helped design the proposed changes to the Israeli justice system at the heart of the ongoing political drama, receives millions from donors abroad, mostly in the United States, as an investigative piece in The New York Times documented this week, building on similar report in Israeli media. Nahalat Shimon, the entity behind successive attempts at evicting Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah, is registered in Delaware, likely owing to that state’s lax corporate transparency laws. These organizations have affected tangible change in Israel.

Critics also like to portray Israel as a unique target of foreign government engagement. Matan Peleg, head of the far-right Israeli NGO Im Tirtzu (the recipient of Israeli government support and private foreign contributions), asked in a recent op-ed “how many of us are aware” that the US funds Israeli civil society organizations. Another detractor alleged that “if a foreign government had funded a similar NGO operating in the US, the Biden administration would have taken immediate action.”

This question should be answered with a big “so what?” Peleg asks who is aware of US support for civil society, but the information is not exactly hidden. This isn’t the work of Russian-sponsored trolls or shadowy public relations consultants burnishing the reputation of their authoritarian clients. The United States government maintains a publicly accessible database of grants awarded from USAID, the State Department, and other agencies, which go to recipients in many places besides Israel, including the Palestinian Territories. Moreover, foreign governments support NGOs and think tanks in the United States – that includes friendly democratic governments, like the United Kingdom, Germany, South Korea, Japan, and many others, whose embassies, foreign ministries, and overseas aid agencies top the lists of donors to a number of major institutions in Washington and beyond.

Whether or not one likes that the Germans or Koreans give money to a university or NGO is beside the point. Pretending this sort of thing only happens in Israel is disingenuous. In fact, the Israeli government is as much a part of this ecosystem of public diplomacy as any other country, funding friendly organizations in the United States. The strategic affairs ministry was created for the very purpose of shaping foreign publics’ perceptions toward Israel.

It’s not that the right in Israel opposes external involvement in Israeli politics. Rather, it seeks to delegitimize groups on the left and center for receiving foreign support while it happily accepts support for its agenda from external sources. Israeli officials chided Nides for commenting on the judicial reform proposal. His predecessor, Ambassador David Friedman, revealed last year that as President Trump’s envoy to Israel, he tried to convince Avigdor Liberman to join Netanyahu’s coalition after the April 2019 Knesset election, representing intervention in an election outcome. Yet there were no cries of foreign meddling from Netanyahu and his associates, and there’s an obvious reason for their silence.

Read more articles like this on Israel Policy Exchange, Israel Policy Forum’s outlet for expert commentary and analysis on U.S.-Israel relations, Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, Israeli politics and society, and the regional politics of the Middle East.

About the Author
Evan Gottesman is an advisor at Israel Policy Forum. His work has been published in Foreign Policy, World Politics Review, The National Interest, Haaretz, The Diplomat, The Forward, and +972 Magazine. Evan has briefed numerous members of Congress and senior legislative staff on US-Israel relations and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has been quoted and cited in The Washington Post, USA Today, and VICE News. He is currently a master’s candidate at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
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