In late January, the Israeli state comptroller fined Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s One Israel (formerly Labor) Party $3 million for accepting foreign campaign contributions during the 1999 election, which made Barak prime minister. Barak claims his party’s conduct was unseemly but not illegal. Did Barak violate the campaign-finance laws?
Under Israeli campaign-finance law, only Israeli citizens may contribute to political campaigns, and contributions are capped at 1,700 new Israeli shekel (about $400) per election. These restrictions apply both to contributions to political parties and to nonprofits that politic on a party’s behalf.
According to the comptroller report, Barak’s party steered $1.5 million in foreign contributions to 10 Israeli nonprofits, which spent the money on everything from posters to billboards to newspaper ads in support of Barak’s campaign for prime minister. The fine for the illegal contributions was pegged at $3 million, or twice the contributions, as stipulated by law, and will be deducted from the general subsidy the party receives from the government. (The government gives each political party $15,000 per elected member of the Knesset, or parliament, each month.)
Barak says the campaign-finance laws don’t apply to his campaign because they were written to regulate parties, not candidates. He seems to have a case. Prior to 1996, the prime minister was chosen from the Knesset by a vote of its members. When the law changed in 1996 to fill the office by direct election, the campaign-finance laws were not amended to reflect that change.
Barak’s predecessor, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, faced similar accusations in 1996, after his nonprofit organizations circumvented the ban on foreign contributions. Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein declined to prosecute Netanyahu, saying that the law was too vague, but has since distanced himself from that decision and is investigating charges that Barak criminally concealed the contributions.
Barak will decide this week whether to petition the Israeli Supreme Court to throw out the fines levied against his party for the foreign money spent on his campaign for prime minister. His party will not contest the fines incurred for using foreign money in the Knesset campaigns.
Explainer thanks Professor Menachem Hofnung of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.