Archive for May 18th, 2008
Olmert Corruption Probe Exposes
Murky Role of US Money in Elections
Marc Perelman, Forward, May 15, 2008
In the past two weeks, three US Jewish donors have been brought in for questioning by Israeli authorities investigating Olmert’s financial dealings. In addition to businessman Talansky, who is a central actor in the probe, the police interrogated right-wing Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and Slim-Fast founder S. Daniel Abraham, a longtime dove. While Israeli officials stressed that Adelson and Abraham were merely witnesses, the sight of two US Jewish magnates being asked to shed light on their relationship with leading Israel politicians appeared to signal more aggressive scrutiny of the role of foreign money in Israeli politics.
Faced with stringent financing rules and frequent primary and general elections, Israeli leaders have increasingly tapped into the deep pockets of Diaspora Jews to fund modern-day campaigns. And after years of relative impunity, those fundraising schemes have become the focus of a series of police investigations, first and foremost the one that led to the guilty plea and imprisonment of Omri Sharon, a Knesset member and the eldest son of former prime minister Ariel Sharon. “The Omri Sharon case has set a rare precedent in a country generally apathetic when it comes to corruption,” said Daniel Kayros, director of fiscal litigation at the Israeli advocacy group, the Movement for Quality Government. “It is being taken seriously by the system, by the press and by the general public, and I am sure politicians are more careful than they used to be when dealing with campaign financing.”
Olmert has admitted to taking cash from Talansky over the course of a decade to fund personal election campaigns, but he has denied any wrongdoing and suggested that the money was handled by associates. He said he would resign only if indicted. The prime minister has hinted that irregularities could have been committed as a result of the stringent regulations governing campaign financing, an argument similar to the one made by Sharon in his own case. After being charged in August 2005 with setting up fictitious companies to conceal illegal contributions to his father’s bid to win the leadership of the Likud party in 1999, Sharon pleaded guilty in November of that year to falsifying corporate documents, perjury and violating party financing laws. He was eventually sentenced to nine months in jail.
Asher Arian, a professor emeritus of political science at Haifa University, noted that public financing of Israeli elections and Israeli political parties was in fact “extremely generous by any comparative standard. Not only are the amounts large and the shekels-to-vote ratio high. Israeli parties get free television and radio time for their political commercials.” In addition to expensive media-rich and consultant-heavy campaigns, since the early 1990s Israel has imported a US-style primary election system rife with opportunities to raise money rarely hampered by oversight. Menachem Hofnung, a senior lecturer in political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a leading expert on political financing issues, argues that intra-party electoral competition is the main factor behind the tendency to disregard fundraising and expenditure regulations. Winning those internal battles is especially important in a system of proportional representation, since it usually means securing a safe seat on the party list.
“Those primaries are directly responsible for weakening political parties, wreaking havoc with party discipline and altering the considerations of elected representatives, who have become beholden to particular segments of their party who brought them into office,” said Naomi Chazan, a former Knesset member for the leftist party Meretz who now heads the school of government and society at the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo. “Needless to say, the opportunities for corruption have grown exponentially, as has the reliance on financial support from a variety of individuals here and abroad who have a vested interest in maintaining close relations with decision-makers.”
Israel had a system of private financing until the late 1960s, with virtually no oversight of party financing. In response to the rising cost of campaigning, the parties agreed to put in place a mixed funding system in 1973, with public money apportioned according to Knesset representation alongside private money, including funds from foreign donors. The growing share of private funding prompted a decision before the 1992 elections to limit private donations to 55,000 shekels, roughly $22,000 at the 1992 rate. In 1994, however, campaign financing rules were rewritten. In addition to increasing public funding and putting in place more stringent transparency requirements, they entailed a drastic change of private funding rules : the ceiling was slashed to 1,000 shekels (around $350 at the 1994 rate) and limited to Israeli citizens exclusively. As a result, Israeli parties now rely almost solely on public funding.
Private donations, including those from foreign donors, have since shifted to party primaries, whose financing is loosely regulated, with oversight authority granted chiefly to the parties themselves. Moreover, reporting of contributions is required only for the nine months prior to the primaries, with no disclosure of fundraising and expenditures needed for any period prior to the cutoff date. In addition to allegedly amassing war chests before the nine-month period, politicians have supposedly collaborated with not-for-profit associations in a scheme in which not-for-profits would campaign for a given politician who would, upon being elected, use his position to steer government funding back toward the associations, according to Hofnung. The shift of private financing toward individuals from parties has landed a number of leading politicians in legal trouble. Each of Olmert’s three immediate predecessors as prime minister—Sharon, Barak and Netanyahu (the latter two now Olmert’s main rivals for office)—have faced investigations over political financing. None of them, however, has been charged with wrongdoing.
Israeli fund raising in US provides context for Olmert case
Ron Kampeas, JTA, May 14, 2008
Donors to Israeli political campaigns are like any others : they want to influence politics and wouldn’t mind a bit of yichus—access—besides. Amid an Israeli scandal that could spell the end of Olmert’s career, three Jews who live in the US and are deeply involved in fund raising for Israeli politicians spoke to JTA about how Israelis raise money overseas. All three, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to protect their ties with a range of Israeli political figures, say that if the allegations of illegal financial dealings between Olmert and Morris Talansky are true, they are very much the exception. “No quid pro quo is expected,” said one who frequently attends fund-raisers for hawkish Israeli politicians. “When people are giving a couple thousand bucks, they’re expecting that the candidate will win and do what they promised to do.”
Israeli politicians regularly collude with American Jews to sidestep Israeli law in raising money from overseas Jews interested in influencing Israeli elections. One Washington consultant to Israeli and American politicians described a common tactic : a US donor pays a grossly inflated price for some minor publicity work by a well-known US political consultant. The consultant—perhaps Arthur Finkelstein on the right, or James Carville on the left—then “donates” his services to an Israeli party or candidate. The Israeli politician avoids having to deal with fund-raising restrictions in finding the money to pay the US political consultant ; the consultant is working for “free.” In reality, the US donor picks up the tab. “It’s come to appall me,” the Washington consultant said, of Israeli politicians’ outreach to American Jews, “it must be such an entrenched thing that they just can’t give it up.”
Israeli police have questioned Olmert and several wealthy American Jewish businessmen in recent days about corruption allegations, including casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, Slim-Fast magnate S. Daniel Abraham and Talansky. All three of the fund-raisers interviewed by JTA for this story acknowledged having heard of super donors who might expect specific dividends for their money, but only as hearsay. None knew of specific instances. But US Jewish influence on Israeli politics is inevitable, a left-wing fund-raiser told JTA. He pointed to the free Israeli daily Yisrael Hayom, a new newspaper launched recently by Adelson, the world’s sixth-wealthiest individual and a close Netanyahu associate. The paper has focused on boosting Netanyahu’s political prospects. The newspaper is “clearly running at a loss, but Adelson is getting the influence he seeks,” the fund-raiser said. On Tuesday, Israeli police interviewed Adelson about the allegations against Olmert. Haaretz reported that police asked Adelson about whether Olmert had asked him to purchase mini-bar services from Talansky for Adelson’s many hotels.
Adelson, who has hawkish views on Israel, told JTA in a rare interview last year that he believed Olmert was prepared to discuss far-reaching territorial compromises with the Palestinians “to stay out of jail.” Adelson also has contributed to President Bush’s campaigns. Before his trip to Israel this week, Bush wished the Israeli prime minister well. “The legal issue goes on, and I fully understand that and respect Israeli rule of law,” Bush said in an interview Monday with Israel’s Channel 10. “I will just tell you, in my—I have great relations with the prime minister. I find him to be a frank man, an honest man, an open man, a guy easy to talk to and somebody who understands the vision necessary for Israeli security.”
One complicating factor in donating to Israeli politicians is the constantly shifting laws governing such donations. Limits vary according to whether it is a national election, a primary election or a municipal election. The laws have been changed with an eye toward reducing Israel’s dependence on Diaspora Jews. Ironically, Olmert has been outspoken in rejecting such dependence. Last year he reprimanded Diaspora Jews who have opposed negotiations on Jerusalem as infringing on Israel’s sovereignty. In 2006, he bridled when US Jewish federations sought credit for helping to build Israel’s North after the Hezbollah war, saying the US Jewish aid was helpful, but hedging when asked if it was necessary.
In the mid-1990s, the Knesset passed a law severely limiting donations to political parties, and another allowing for the direct election of a prime minister. The donations law did not cover direct elections. That allowed parties to funnel unlimited cash into the prime minister’s race and made a mockery of the earlier effort to limit cash donations. The direct elections law has since been rescinded. Contributions to primary elections for the leadership of Israeli political parties carry the highest maximum restriction. Individuals may donate up to about $11,000 within nine months before the election; donations are unlimited before this period. Limitations on how much candidates may raise overall depend on party membership. Candidates for the leadership of parties with more than 5,000 electors may raise up to $570,000. General elections are funded by the state. The perpetually shifting laws have led to confusion both among US donors and Israeli politicians. In recent years, some US Jewish donors have asked for translations of current Israeli law—in some cases even asking for lawyers’ letters guaranteeing that the donor will not be placed in legal jeopardy, according to one of the fund-raisers interviewed.
The biggest loophole enabling US Jewish donors to tinker in Israeli politics is in contributions to NGOs and non-profit groups that champion one or another Israeli political party or cause, experts say. “An ad campaign can say, ‘When you vote for prime minister, vote for the candidate who’s best for the environment’—and everyone knows who that is,” said the Washington consultant. A similar phenomenon exists in the US, where campaign finance restrictions on direct donations to parties in recent years have spurred the growth of so-called “527s”—groups associated with the US tax code loophole that allows issue-based non-profits to attack candidates, so long as the groups don’t endorse a particular candidate.
I beg to differ, Madam Ambassador
Alizeh Haider, Jang News International, May 18, 2008
Eric S Margolis, a veteran American journalist, once wrote
Anyone who still wonders why so many in the Muslim World hate the West needs to look no further than Pakistan, where, in the name of ‘democracy’ and ‘counter terrorism,’ Washington and London are stirring a witches’ brew of dictatorship, intrigue and violence.
It is thus fascinating to see a senior diplomat of an important country like America all wide eyed with wonder over the sentiments of the people of Pakistan towards her country. The US ambassador to Pakistan, Anne W. Patterson, is reportedly “surprised” at the depth of anti-Americanism in Pakistan, especially in the middle class, because, as she sees it, Pakistan’s long-term interests are aligned with “ours and with those of other Western countries.” Madam Ambassador’s perception is inherently flawed, on two counts. First, if by her statement she means that the strength of anti-American sentiment is particularly strong in the middle class, then perhaps she ought to widen her sphere of interaction within Pakistani society. Madam Ambassador probably feels this way because it is only the middle and upper middle classes that she has been directly exposed to, and she has hardly had the opportunity to hob-nob with the regular Joe on the street. If she were to do so, it would add to her surprise, because this anti-American sentiment runs right across the length and breadth of the nation.
In fact, it would not be incorrect to say that every Pakistani, irrespective of gender, age or class, resents America’s intrusiveness in our domestic and foreign affairs, and feels that Pakistan has been a victim (sometimes a willing victim) of America’s ruthless foreign policy. Apart from those who are direct beneficiaries of American involvement in Pakistan, most Pakistanis would like to see America stop its meddling, and allow indigenous political forces to create and partake in a transparent and legitimate political process. Second, while it is true that, tragically, many of our policies are reflective of American policies and interests, it does not necessarily follow that the national interests of the two countries are aligned, or that such an alignment is in any way good for Pakistan. Pakistan’s national concerns, be they short term or long term, ought to be aligned with none other than Pakistan itself. And if, God forbid, that is not the case, then Pakistan is betraying its own national interest.
It is true that countries often share collective objectives. These objectives are usually based on regional, geographic, traditional, socio-cultural or religious commonalities. These commonalities then form the basis of a unified political and economic vision or approach, which then becomes the “common interests” or “aligned interests” of nation states. Let us be very clear. Pakistan shares no such commonalities with the US, nor has our relationship over the years developed on the basis of equality, equity or respect. The interest of the United States, as reflected in its lethal foreign policy, is purely US-centric. It would be naïve for America to expect us to believe that in some way Pakistan’s national interest is accounted for in American policies. As seen through the eyes of a Pakistani, America’s relationship with Pakistan is purely that of a patron and client, whereby, through years of flawed policies, Pakistan has reduced itself to being a subservient rent state. Madam Ambassador goes on to say
I suspect that those who oppose American engagement in Pakistan have a limited understanding of how our partnerships—economic assistance and financial interactions—changed the lives of everyday Pakistanis in real and positive ways.
I assure Her Excellency that such is not the case, and that we are not an abysmally ungrateful bunch. We know very well that our country’s economy cannot sustain itself, and financial help from other countries like America is helping us to stay, barely, afloat. The source of anti-American sentiment, thus, is not Pakistani’s lack of acknowledgement and appreciation for America’s economic assistance ; rather, our sense of resentment and deprivation is the result of the pound of flesh which America demands in return—that is, the sovereignty of our people. America’s manna comes from a poisoned chalice. Years of American aid and financial assistance have had a corrosive effect on Pakistan’s institutions and its society. It has made America perhaps the most powerful force in Pakistan, and has severed the natural links of accountability between governments and people. While American money may have fed thousands of hungry in Pakistan, it has also fed violence, alienation and distrust in our society. America’s unaccountable and unquestioning generosity towards our military has made it resistant to democratic checks, and has severely distorted the balance of powers between important state institutions, creating conflict and mistrust between them. America pays military governments several million dollars a year, and many more directly to our military, and in return it uses our military and our land to further its own political agenda in the region.
On the one hand, America professes the importance of democracy in Pakistan, in which the ultimate sounding board is the will of the people, and on the other hand, America has deprived the people of their power. What better example of this than the current political crisis in Pakistan? Deny all it will, America has and continues to micro-manage our affairs. Despite all its hollow claims of supporting democracy and fighting terrorism, America continues to back autocratic, dictatorial, military rulers, and thereby increasing public alienation, social turmoil and political instability. In the elections of 2008, the people of Pakistan gave General Musharraf and his cronies the order of the boot. In no uncertain terms, the message given by the people of Pakistan was that they no longer want a military rule which does not empower the people, which does not put national interest first, and which is exceedingly obedient to foreign orders. Being seen as a close American ally cost Musharraf and his cronies heavily. However, once again, the will of the people was vetoed by America, and regardless of the fact that the majority of the people would like to see the back of Pervez Musharaf, he remains seated in the Presidency, probably sending thank you emails to President Bush every morning.
Another example of how American involvement in Pakistan has created strife and instability in the country is the never ending judges’ saga. The people of Pakistan have very courageously taken a stand for the reinstatement of the judges illegally and unconstitutionally deposed by General Musharraf on Nov 3. But the US continues to arm-twist Pakistani leaders into acquiescence, and is pressuring the coalition government into making an unpopular decision. Such underhand manoeuvrings by America will only go towards weakening democracy in Pakistan by creating mistrust between the people and their leaders. Resultantly, yet another military dictator who has for years been feeding on America’s dole would find this a perfect opportunity to step up and anoint himself the saviour of the nation. If America genuinely wants to help Pakistan, then it must show respect for the will of the people of this country. If the “war on terror” is really a war on terror, and if America is committed to winning it, then the best thing it can do is help create a stable and moderate Pakistan. This can only be done if America distances itself from the governance of the country and alleviates the feeling of alienation and helplessness amongst the people, by allowing them to play their rightful role in the political process.
Bush’s speech to the Israeli Knesset on Thursday generated near-immediate controversy in the United States, for all of the wrong reasons. Within hours, Obama had accused Bush of taking a political swipe at him by ridiculing those who advocate dialogue with Israel’s enemies as embracing a “foolish delusion” based on “appeasement.” By the end of the day, both Obama and McCain were falling over themselves, in their effort to best one another in proving their pro-Israel credentials. All the while, Bush, Obama and McCain demonstrated a sickening insensitivity to the plight of the eleven million Palestinians who have endured unjustifiable horrors for the last sixty years.
As Bush delivered his speech, just a few kilometers away in the Occupied Territories, as well as in neighboring states, Palestinians and their Arab supporters were observing the Nakba, or catastrophe, of the loss of what was once the homeland of the Palestinian people. After sixty years, the Nakba has only worsened. Scores of those who were driven from their homes in 1948 and 1967 still live in refugee camps across the region, along with their children and grandchildren. Millions still have no official citizenship, meaning that ordinary activities like visiting relatives, getting a job or going to university are beyond reach. Millions more are being forced to endure malnutrition, starvation, early death as a result of “collateral damage” and countless other forms of collective punishment.
During his address, Bush made no mention of the ongoing suffering that resulted from Israel’s creation, and instead invoked the terminology of the most ardent Zionists, using phrases like the “homeland of the chosen people Eretz Yisrael.” Even hard-liners, like Likud member Silvan Shalom and National Religious Party chairman Zvulun Orlev, noted that the speech was uncannily similar to those of the most ultra-religious leaders in Israel, many of whom are staunchly opposed to the idea of a peace agreement that would result in the creation of a Palestinian state. Bush spoke of the unimaginable plight of Jews in Europe nearly half a century ago, but made no mention of the modern-day anguish of Palestinians. He did briefly manage to offer up a vision of a Palestinian state that might one day exist—in sixty more years.
Bush claimed to be speaking in the name of three hundred million American citizens when he delivered his address. Are we to believe that the American people openly advocate the continued denial of the most basic human rights for the Palestinians? Is it not more likely that they believe the “matchless value of every man, woman and child,” to use Bush’s words, also applies to people who happen to be Palestinian instead of Israeli? Wouldn’t many of them want the people of Palestine to be mentioned if they “insist that the people of Israel have the right to a decent, normal and peaceful life, just like the citizens of every other nation?”
Already, bin Laden has sought to capitalize on Bush’s bias, by portraying the United States as an enemy of the Arab and Muslim peoples. Were it not for the ongoing tragedy of the people of Palestine, along with the new tragedies unfolding in Iraq under Bush’s watch, ideas like bin Laden’s would probably get little or no traction in this region. But unfortunately, Bush has made the work of people like bin Laden that much easier—and thus he has made America and Israel much less safe.