Israel

Senate Report Raises Hard Questions About U.S. Involvement in Israeli Elections

American taxpayer funds designated to bolster Israeli-Palestinian peace talks were also spent on resources that were used as part of a political campaign against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during last year’s elections, a bipartisan Senate report revealed Tuesday.

The report, issued by the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations, found that OneVoice Movement — which received over $300,000 in State Department grants between September 2013 and November 2014 — used “campaign infrastructure and resources built, in part, with State Department grants funds to support V15.” The Israeli group V15 became a subsidiary of OneVoice shortly after elections for Israel’s Knesset were scheduled in January 2015. With the help of a former Obama campaign strategist, V15 then worked to mobilize voters against the Netanyahu government before election day that March.

While the Subcommittee “found no evidence that OneVoice spent grant funds to influence the 2015 Israeli elections,” it noted that resources OneVoice developed with the help of American taxpayer money were used to aid 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 the grant 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.

The report noted that OneVoice did not violate the terms of its grant agreement by using “government-funded resources for political purposes,” since the State Department did not place any limitations on using the resources after the grant expired. However, it stated that the State 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,” even though OneVoice was engaged in political activism in the 2013 Israeli election.

Notably, investigators were unable to collect all document necessary for their probe because a top State Department official deleted relevant email records, the Washington Free Beacon reported.

“The State Department was unable to produce all documents responsive to the Subcommittee’s requests due to its failure to retain complete email records of Michael Ratney, who served as U.S. Consul General in Jerusalem during the award and oversight of the OneVoice grants,” the Senate report stated. “The Subcommittee discovered this retention problem because one important email exchange between OneVoice and Mr. Ratney … was produced to the Subcommittee only by OneVoice. After conducting additional searches, the Department informed the Subcommittee that it was unable to locate any responsive emails from Mr. Ratney’s inbox or sent mail.”

Mr. Ratney later elaborated, “[A]t times I deleted emails with attachments I didn’t need in order to maintain my inbox under the storage limit.” There was an option to archive emails to stay below storage limits, but Mr. Ratney stated that he “did not know [he] was required to archive routine emails.”

“The experience under the OneVoice grants … reveals the ease with which recipient organizations can repurpose certain public-diplomacy resources for political activities. The State Department failed to foresee and guard against that risk from the outset,” the report concluded.

Unlike most similar Senate probes, this investigation was bipartisan: it was overseen by subcommittee chairman Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and ranking member Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).

[Photo: Miriam Alster / Flash90]