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Shir Hever of the Alternative Information Center says many dubious fundraising strategies are used; some are illegal and under investigation

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. In Israel, if you’re running for office, you must declare where your funds for your campaign has come from. Through this process it was recently reported that Israel prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has raised almost all of his campaign money outside of Israel, mainly from the United States. Joining us from Göttingen, Germany, to discuss all of this is Shir Hever. Shir is an economic researcher at the Alternative Information Center, a Palestinian-Israel organization active in Jerusalem and Beit Sahour. Thank you so much for joining us. SHIR HEVER, ECONOMIST, ALTERNATIVE INFORMATION CENTER: Thank you for having me, Sharmini. PERIES: So, Shir, let’s begin with who published this information and how did we come to know that most of the campaign money for Benjamin Netanyahu’s candidacy for prime minister this time around is coming from outside of U.S. HEVER: Well, according to the regulations set by the Israeli Elections Committee, candidates and actually political party are required to publish the sources of their donations. And there are restrictions on how much donations candidates can raise. So that information is supposed to be public knowledge. There are some problems with the reporting. But I think much more important are the loopholes in the system, because there are many ways that candidates can raise money in other ways. For example, the most common system used by Israeli politicians is to have nonprofits, charities, NGOs who are receiving donations through completely different channels and are supposed to be promoting various ideas like education actually active in the campaign time to support specific candidates. And that’s one way. And they do that in exchange for large donations during the non-election time. So that’s considered a crime, but it is done in–several times in their investigations. PERIES: In what sort of ways? HEVER: Well, now, actually, the big–the focus of the story with the illicit or, let’s say, dubious campaign funds is actually on Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister himself. But he’s trying and his party are trying to now claim that also their biggest opposition party, calling itself the Zionist camp, which is actually another reiteration of the Labour Party, which is Israel’s, well, sort of Zionist-centrist or Zionist-leftist party, is also getting money illicitly through an organization called V15, Victory 2015, or V15 for short. What–the difference is that while accusations regarding Netanyahu’s funding are mainly based on legal arguments and whether or not–who is actually paying money and for what purpose, the accusations against the V15 movement are taking a much more sinister tone. I’m not saying that necessarily these donations are legitimate, but the way that Netanyahu’s party, the Likud Party, presenting this organization as if it is an organization of Islamic terrorists. And I think that also shed some light on the level of political debate in Israel these days. I think the more interesting story there is that all the money that Netanyahu is collecting from various donors, most of them from the United States, almost no Israeli has given any money at all to Netanyahu himself for his campaign, and not very many gave to the Likud Party as a whole. But a more interesting part is that all of that money put together is actually smaller than the amount put forward by one rich donor, Sheldon Adelson, from the United States, who has started his own newspaper in Israel, which is distributed for free. It doesn’t cost money to get this newspaper. And this newspaper has been operating for quite some time in Israel. It’s called a Israel Today. And it’s an extremely pro-Netanyahu newspaper. It just gives the Netanyahu message, the Netanyahu narrative on a daily basis for free to the entire public of Israel. And that is not called campaign funding. So that’s a loophole. There’s nothing illegal about it. PERIES: So, Shir, this funding from Adelson, the newspaper is on top of the funding he has given Prime Minister Netanyahu for his campaign. What is the level of funding? How much money are we talking about here? HEVER: We don’t know exactly, but as I said, this is a newspaper that is delivered for free. Actually, it makes no money. So Adelson is sinking tens of millions of dollars into this newspaper every month, every month, for about ten years now. So that is a level of funding that all of the other campaign finances put together cannot match. PERIES: And how much money has he actually allocated for the campaign itself? HEVER: Well, he’s not on the list of the biggest donors to Netanyahu, actually. So this list that Netanyahu has to publish doesn’t have Sheldon Adelson’s name. PERIES: So who are the biggest donors from the U.S. to Netanyahu’s campaign? HEVER: These are private families, and there is a list–maybe we can see it on the screen–of some names. But they’re not particularly known or famous in the U.S. or in Israel. But, of course, we can never know whether this money’s actually coming from somebody who doesn’t want to reveal their own identity and is using some friends or family to channel them. PERIES: So, Shir, if this was publicized in Israel, how is that being received in terms of local political campaigning? HEVER: Well, at the same time, we have corruption scandals that are erupting one by one in Israel. One corruption scandal is now haunting Netanyahu because his household, the prime minister’s home, which is very much like the White House, actually a publicly funded building, and everything, all the expenses are publicly funded, what they did was they collected lots of small bottles, drinking bottles, and then took the deposit on those bottles for themselves. They used a private driver. So the prime minister’s family used a private driver to collect the deposit on these bottles. And that came to thousands of dollars, which they pocketed. And later, when it was exposed, they returned the money. Another scandal is regarding trips of Netanyahu abroad which cost a lot of money, trips in great luxury, which were paid by donors who choose to remain anonymous. And it’s not clear what exactly these donors got in exchange for giving Netanyahu free trips. And the third scandal that just came out recently is that during the visit of the Japanese delegation, the Japanese prime minister, who’s recently visited Israel, Netanyahu asked one of the officials on the Japanese delegations for a private conversation. And according to this Japanese official, Netanyahu asked this official if he could promote a casino which was owned by Sheldon Adelson in Japan. So, actually, Netanyahu was lobbying for Adelson while acting as prime minister and hosting the Japanese delegation. So these are corruption stories now happening one by one. The funding is not the only one amid all of these. And nevertheless, it seems almost certain that Netanyahu is going to win the elections. PERIES: And why is that so? I mean, scandals of this kind usually means that they will take a dip in the polls and become less popular. Why is Netanyahu maintaining his lead and predicted to be the next prime minister again? HEVER: Well, maybe the best way to put it–I want to quote from a blog of a teacher, a school teacher that I read today. And she had a political conversation with her pupils, and they said–and she was telling them, like, look at all this money that goes to waste because of corruption, because of the policies of the government. Wouldn’t you want that money to be used in a more egalitarian way? Wouldn’t you want to have better standard of living? And the kids, the pupils in the classroom, who were all supporting Netanyahu 100 percent, said, what is all the money in the world worth for us if we’re all going to die by an Iranian bomb? I think that really is the key of the issue. Netanyahu’s only reason to be reelected, his only campaign slogan, his only motto is fear. We have to be afraid because we have enemies. In every speech, he makes this list of all the organizations, whether it’s ISIS or Boko Haram or Hezbollah and Hamas, and he’s putting them all together as if it’s one giant army that wants nothing else in the world except to destroy Israel, and repeats that again and again in all of his speeches, and tells people, you have to vote for me because no other leader in Israel will be able to protect us. And even as he’s doing that, he’s actually causing additional conflict and he’s harming the security of Israeli citizens–for example, in his recent assault inside Syria that provoked, of course, reactions from Hezbollah and caused deaths on both sides. And nevertheless this maintains a very high level of fear, and therefore people continue to be committed to vote for the right-wing in Israel, for Netanyahu. And even the other parties, realizing that they have to put security first and they have to put high-ranking generals on the top of their lists, accept this narrative and propagate it further. PERIES: Right. It is also this campaign that is bringing him to the United States at the beginning of March, prior to the elections in Israel. Tell us more about that controversy. HEVER: Yeah, exactly. So, actually, everyone is telling Netanyahu, don’t go. Even his own house newspaper, Israel Today, that I mentioned before, funded by Sheldon Adelson, has published an op-ed calling Netanyahu not to go to Congress, because it would be a political mistake, it would worsen Israel’s relations with the United States. And there was also a very good story on this on The Real News. But Netanyahu is going in defiance of all this advice, because by going, he can make the show that he’s a strong man who doesn’t listen to advice, who doesn’t care what people think. And it’s very similar to what he did in Paris when he pushed himself to the front line in the demonstration, elbowed his way through, basically preventing presenting himself as a kind of bully or as a kind of very strong, direct person. And that is the image he’s trying to sell to the Israeli public, because that’s what would convince them to elect him as Mr. Security, even if the long-term effects of these actions are disastrous for the Israeli political situation and for its economy. PERIES: So, Shir, how are the Arab parties represented in the upcoming election? HEVER: The Israeli government, the recent Israeli government, has passed a law that increases the minimum number of percentage you have to get in order to get into the parliament. So that actually was a racist law which was solely intended to force the three parties representing Palestinian citizens of Israel to unite into one big party, because they know that on themselves they won’t be able to get through that percentage. So even though these three different political parties represent different ideologies, different ideas, now they have to run as one party. Well, they do, they are going to have to run as one party. And it’s probably going to be a relatively big party, because three parties joining forces together. But this party actually tells us a big story about why Netanyahu is almost sure to win, because the main opposition party, the Zionist camp, would refuse to make a coalition with the Arab party. They consider the Arabs not legitimate partners for a coalition. And, in fact, they just made a statement that they are going to support ousting one of the members of parliament from Israel, basically disqualifying her. Her name is Haneen Zoabi, and she’s a feminist parliamentarian, Palestinian, and a very outspoken activist, as well as a politician. And she would be disqualified from the parliament–or they’re trying to disqualify her. And the Zionist camp, by making that statement, they’re saying, well, we know that we will not have any chance of making a coalition with this party now because we’re attacking them so brutally. But we’re hoping to get popularity, because maybe people who hate Arabs would then vote for us. And, of course, that means that they’re not going to be the ruling party. That makes it quite clear that they won’t have the chance to be the ruling party. But they think that even if they will be in a position that they could make a coalition with them, they won’t do it anyway. So it’s a price they’re willing to pay. PERIES: This seems to be a logical next story for us to pick up. And we will do that. HEVER: Yeah. And hopefully The Real News would find one of the members of this party to give an interview. PERIES: With your help, I think we can do that. Thank you so much for joining us today, Shir. HEVER: Thank you, Sharmini, for having me. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Dr. Shir Hever grew up in Israel and now lives in Germany. He has been reporting on Israel/Palestine stories for 16 years, and for the Real News specifically since 2016. He’s the author of two books and many articles, and is a committed member of several Palestine solidarity groups.