State Dep’t Silent on Key Finding of Inquiry Into US-Funded Anti-Netanyahu NGO

By Patrick Goodenough | July 13, 2016 | 12:08 AM EDT

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu have not seen eye-to-eye on the Iran nuclear deal or the Palestinian issue. (AP Photo, File)

( – State Department spokesman John Kirby noted Tuesday that a congressional investigation into a U.S.-funded Israeli NGO found no evidence that the group had used the funds to influence the tightly-contested 2015 Israeli election.

Kirby did not comment, however, on the inquiry’s key finding – that the NGO known as OneVoice, within days of the end of its U.S. grant period, had used the infrastructure and resources which U.S. taxpayers had helped make possible, to support a campaign aimed at defeating Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the polls.

Those resources included training of activists, a social media platform “which more than doubled during the State Department grant period,” as well as a voter database, according to a report compiled by bipartisan staff on the Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations, released Tuesday.

Kirby said since the report had just been released, he could not comment on specifics.

“But I would note that the report makes clear there’s no evidence that OneVoice spent State Department grant funds to influence the Israeli election,” he added.

Criticism in the lengthy report was directed less at OneVoice than it was at the State Department.

“That use of [U.S.] government-funded resources for political purposes [in Israel] was permitted by the grant because the State Department failed to adequately guard against the risk that campaign resources could be repurposed in that manner,” it said.

The report found that the State Department had placed no limitations on the use of the U.S.-funded resources was the grant period was over.

And even though OneVoice had been politically active in an earlier Israel election, in 2013, the State Department had “failed to take any steps to guard against the risk that OneVoice could engage in political activities” again, using U.S.-funded infrastructure and resources, it said.

“[T]he Department did not assess the risks involved in providing funds to OneVoice to create a grassroots campaign infrastructure – including voter contact information, trained networks of organizers and activists, and a social media platform – that might later be converted into political tools.”

The report also noted that the second most-senior U.S. diplomat in the region, Consul-General Michael Ratney, had evidently deleted “an important email exchange” between himself and OneVoice in the fall of 2014 (about two months before the U.S. grant period ended on November 30, and before Netanyahu on December 2 called an early election for the following March.)

In that email exchange with Ratney, OneVoice had attached a strategy document that made clear its view on the need to change Israel’s political status quo:  “Our aim is to strengthen the [center left] bloc, rather than any one party, [and] in tandem weaken Netanyahu and his right wing partners.”

In a strategy document emailed to U.S. Consul-General Michael Ratney two months before its U.S. funding period ended, OneVoice made clear that its political aim looking ahead was to ‘weaken Netanyahu and his right wing partners.’ (Image: Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations report)

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), the chairman of the permanent subcommittee on investigations, slammed the State Department for funding “a politically active group in a politically sensitive environment with inadequate safeguards.”

“It is completely unacceptable that U.S. taxpayer dollars were used to build a political campaign infrastructure that was deployed – immediately after the grant ended – against the leader of our closest ally in the Middle East,” Portman added. “American resources should be used to help our allies in the region, not undermine them.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), the ranking member of the subcommittee, said the investigation found “no wrongdoing” by the administration.

But, she said, “it certainly highlights deficiencies in the [State] Department’s policies that should be addressed in order to best protect taxpayer dollars.”

Obama-linked DC consultancy

It was an open secret in March 2015 that the Obama administration would have been glad to see Netanyahu replaced by a prime minister more amenable both to the administration’s efforts to broker peace with the Palestinians, and to its nuclear deal with Iran.

Netanyahu addresses a joint meeting of Congress in Washington on March 3, 2015. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Just weeks before the election, Netanyahu in an address to Congress had warned against the nuclear deal – to the frustration of the administration which was touting the agreement as a major foreign policy success.

When Netanyahu upset poll predictions and won, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said that his “success is all the more impressive given the powerful forces that tried to undermine him, including, sadly, the full weight of the Obama political team.”

“Everyone knows that the Obama administration was rooting for the prime minister to lose,” said Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who like Cruz went on to run unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest  rejected such criticism, saying that “the administration, in very conspicuous fashion, avoided leaving anybody with even the appearance of an administration effort to influence the outcome of the elections one way or the other.”

State Department funding to OneVoice totaled some $350,000 during the 14-month grant period, and was geared towards helping the NGO’s efforts to promote a “two-state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Salaries, consultancy fees and social media activities were among the targets for the funding.

The funding included $40,000 to enable OneVoice to hire the services of a Washington-based political consulting firm, 270 Strategies, with close political ties to President Obama. It provided grassroots campaign training and advised OneVoice on building “an activist/voter contact database,” the report said.

(270 Strategies was founded by Jeremy Bird and Mitch Stewart, veterans of Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, and leading figures in the “Ready for Hillary” PAC.)

During the Israeli election campaign an Israeli activist group known as Victory 2015 (V15) mobilized to defeat Netanyahu. Shortly after OneVoice’s U.S. grant period ended, it teamed up with V15 in an effort to achieve that aim.

The Senate investigation found that OneVoice had used the resources it had built up with the help of the U.S. funding, to support the V15 campaign.

“Soon after the grant period ended … OneVoice used the campaign infrastructure and resources built, in part, with State Department grants funds to support V15,” it said.

“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 [OneVoice] 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.”

In a Jan. 2015 statement announcing their teaming up and intention “to disrupt the status quo,” OneVoice and V15 said they would be using the services of 270 Strategies.

On its website, 270 Strategies says V15 had with its help “reached out to more than 750,000 targeted voters in the 2015 Israeli elections.”

During its investigation, the Senate subcommittee staffers learned that Ratney, the consul-general in Jerusalem, appeared to have deleted emails including his exchanges with OneVoice including a strategy document that made clear the group’s anti-Netanyahu plans for the next election.

Ratney later explained that he sometimes “deleted emails with attachments I didn’t need in order to maintain my inbox under the storage limit.”

The report stated that although officials have the option to archive emails so as to remain within storage limits, Ratney had said that he “did not know [he] was required to archive routine emails.”

In a statement after the release of the subcommittee’s report, OneVoice highlighted the same conclusion Kirby did – that the inquiry found no evidence the NGO used U.S. funds to influence the Israeli election.

“OneVoice will continue its important work promoting peace and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians,” it said.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow