After Benjamin Netanyahu staged a surprise win in Israel’s national election sixteen months ago, questions began emerging about whether the Obama administration attempted to intervene on behalf of his opponents. Almost immediately afterward, an American pollster who worked with Netanyahu’s Likud in the election accused the State Department of indirectly funding the “V15” campaign that backed his opponent. Despite denials from State that they had funded V15 through an American organization named OneVoice, a Senate investigation found that’s exactly what happened:
A new report posted today by the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI), led by chair Rob Portman (R-OH) confirms that the U.S. State Department funded an Israeli political organization that later ran a campaign dedicated to ousting Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The group, OneVoice, has drawn media scrutiny that led to this investigation.
The Weekly Standard’s Jim Swift points to key passages from the report that underscore the connections between OneVoice’s State Department funding and V15’s operations:
On December 2, 2014, at the urging of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Knesset voted to schedule new national parliamentary elections for March 2015. Within weeks, an international organization known as the OneVoice Movement absorbed and funded an Israeli group named Victory15 or “V15” and launched a multimillion-dollar grassroots campaign in Israel. The campaign’s goal was to elect “anybody but Bibi [Netanyahu]” by mobilizing center-left voters.1 The Israeli and Palestinian arms of OneVoice, OneVoice Israel (OVI), and OneVoice Palestine (OVP), received more than $300,000 in grants from the U.S. State Department to support peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine over a 14- month grant period ending in November 2014. …
OneVoice used the campaign infrastructure and resources built, in part, with State Department grants funds to support V15. In service of V15, OneVoice deployed its social media platform, which more than doubled during the State Department grant period; used its database of voter contact information, including email addresses, which OVI expanded during thegrant period; and enlisted its network of trained activists, many of whom were recruited or trained under the grant, to support and recruit for V15. This pivot to electoral politics was consistent with a strategic plan developed by OneVoice leadership and emailed to State Department officials during the grant period. The State Department diplomat who received the plan told the Subcommittee that he never reviewed it.
OneVoice’s use of government-funded resources for political purposes was not prohibited by the grant agreement because the State Department placed no limitations on the post-grant use of those resources. Despite OneVoice’s previous political activism in the 2013 Israeli election, the Department failed to take any steps to guard against the risk that OneVoice could engage in political activities using State-funded grassroots campaign infrastructure after the grant period.
That sounds a bit passive, but it’s still a key point. The US government has become rather sensitive to allegations that they interfere with elections in other countries, especially allies, through NGOs and non-profits. Policies prohibiting use of funding for political purposes exist not just to remove suspicion from the US but also to protect NGOs from becoming targets in other countries. The lack of such a prohibition in this case becomes a rather significant red flag on intent at the State Department, especially since OneVoice had been active in electoral politics in Israel’s 2013 election.
The report absolves OneVoice of using State Department grant money directly on electoral politics during the grant period. But they certainly prepared to use those resources well in advance:
The peace talks initiated by Secretary Kerry ended in late April 2014.78 Shortly afterward—and half-way through the State Department grant period— OneVoice leadership began preparing for the next Israeli election. The Subcommittee’s investigation revealed that, during the grant period, OneVoice developed a political strategy designed to defeat the incumbent Israeli government. That strategy relied on grassroots voter outreach and mobilization using campaign infrastructure built, in part, with State Department funds.
It’s not as if the State Department didn’t know about OneVoice’s plans. In fact, as the report notes, OneVoice was remarkably open about their plans. On at least two occasions during the grant period, they told the State Department exactly how they would use its grant funding, emphases mine:
All three of the State Department officials that the Subcommittee interviewed stated they first learned of OneVoice’s planned political activity when they read news accounts concerning its “partnership” with V15.109 The Subcommittee asked two State Department officials—a senior official with the NEA Bureau and former Consul General Ratney—what the State Department would have done if, during the grant period, OneVoice had informed State officials that it was planning to launch an anti-Netanyahu campaign to coincide with the next election. Consul General Ratney initially responded that it would have been a “red flag” and State would have stopped the grant if it had known OneVoice was making such plans during the grant period. To do otherwise would have been “crazy,” Mr. Ratney explained, given the State Department’s sensitivities about “messaging.”110 The senior official in the NEA Bureau responded that State likely would have ended the grant and the decision would have “gone up the chain, likely to the Ambassador.”111
The record is clear, however, that OneVoice did inform at least two State Department officials of its political plans, and it did so during the grant period. The Department took no action in response, although it is unclear whether the officials in receipt of the plans reviewed them. In September 2014, three months before the grant period was scheduled to end but after the final payment of U.S. funds to OneVoice Israel on August 25, 2014, Mr. Ginsberg exchanged a number of emails with Consul General Ratney, then the second-highest-ranking American diplomat in the region.112 In that exchange, Mr. Ginsberg said he was in the process of obtaining final PeaceWorks board approval of a “major strategy directed at centrist Israelis” after “quietly bouncing ideas off a lot of folks, including Martin [Indyk] in its preparation.”113 Mr. Ginsberg indicated that he did not “expect much help from the USG [United States Government] in its final phase,” but offered to share the strategy “for friendship sake.”114 Mr. Ratney responded that he would “love to take a look at the strategy.”115
The proposal sent to Mr. Ratney, “A Strategic Plan to Mobilize Centrist Israeli & Palestinian,” was the culmination of months of work and presented a “bold and definable” political option to “[l]aunch a major strategic campaign that could shift a key portion of the Israeli and Palestinian electorates in a direction that would marginalize the extremists on either side,” according to Mr. Ginsberg’s email.116 The proposal outlined the political goals of OneVoice in the next Israeli election, which was yet to be scheduled: “The [center-left] bloc has not been able to unify around a common message, a common agenda, or a strong leader. Our aim is to strengthen the bloc, rather than any one party, [and] in tandem weaken Netanyahu and his right wing parties.”117 Additionally, the proposal listed seven “Specific Israeli Tactical Objectives.”118 The second objective was clear: “Shift support within the Knesset from a Likud-centric coalition to a center left coalition through public education and grassroots mobilization initiatives.”119
That sounds pretty darned clear, and certainly should have raised a “red flag” high enough to remember later. Oddly, though, Ratney said he couldn’t recall it, and claimed he never bothered to read the attachment. In fact, the subcommittee had to get the e-mail chain from OneVoice, because State couldn’t locate it, as this footnote explains:
This email chain was not produced to the Subcommittee by the State Department, despite being responsive to the Subcommittee’s document request. The Department later told the Subcommittee it was unable to find the email chain because it was not retained.
Gee … this sounds so familiar coming from State.
The investigation could not establish that State directed those funds in a concerted effort to unseat the head of government of a close US ally. It’s very clear, however, that the State Department knew full well what OneVoice wanted to do, and had no problem providing the funds and then averting their eyes when necessary. That may not be enough evidence for Comey-level establishment of intent, but it looks very clear from the political horizon.