Israel’s Meddling in US Politics Is Aggressive and Unceasing

For all the periodic meltdowns about foreign interference in US elections and politics by countries like Russia, it’s actually Israel, a nominal ally, that has done far more meddling in American politics — with far more influence.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is greeted by members of Congress as he arrives to speak at the US Capitol on March 3, 2015. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

For the past week, the United States and Israel have been embroiled in a nasty public spat, with one country accusing the other of meddling in its internal politics. The joke is that Israel is the one doing the accusing.

The brawl kicked off after a headline-grabbing speech from Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer last Thursday, charging that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had “lost his way” and calling for “a new election” in the country. Schumer’s intervention followed a drip feed of reports suggesting that the Joe Biden administration hoped to nudge Netanyahu out of power in Israel. Naturally, the Netanyahu government wasn’t pleased, with the prime minister complaining to CNN that it was “inappropriate to go to a sister democracy and try to replace the elected leadership there. . . . We’re not a banana republic.”

“Israel is a sovereign country,” Tal Heinrich, Netanyahu’s spokesperson, told Newsmax. “We don’t intervene in American politics, and we expect to be treated with the same respect.”

But Israel is being treated with the same respect it treats the United States. For decades, intervening in the domestic politics of the United States and working to replace its elected leadership has been the Israeli government’s bread and butter.

The fact is that Israeli political meddling in the United States has gone from an open secret in Washington to more-or-less public knowledge nationwide under Netanyahu’s leadership — something complained about by media commentators, US officials, intelligence officers, and prominent Jewish public figures. More and more, this political interference is not so much linked back to the Israeli government as a whole but to its most right-wing factions. And its scale, frequency, and power far outdo the meddling of any other foreign power, making Israel, in practice, closer to an adversarial state than a friendly one.

Bots, Trolls, and Anti-BDS

It’s not like Israel’s meddling in US politics is ancient history. Mere days after the Netanyahu government was done huffing and puffing about external interference in its sovereign decision-making, an Israeli watchdog group revealed the existence of a social media information campaign pushing Israeli government propaganda onto US lawmakers, including its dubious allegations about Hamas links to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). According to the report, 85 percent of the politicians targeted were Democrats, 90 percent of whom were black.

It’s not clear what the exact source behind this campaign is. But given the fact that the Israeli state has admitted to or been caught carrying out vast online disinformation campaigns before — and given that the influence campaign closely tracked official propaganda, with its attacks on UNRWA peaking at the exact time the Israeli government formally launched the accusations against the agency — it’s not a stretch to suspect this might be a government operation.

Speaking of intervening in US politics, Netanyahu has gone so far as to publicly take credit for the spate of laws taking aim at Americans’ right to boycott Israel over its apartheid system, laws that are now on the books in no less than thirty-eight states.

“In recent years, we have promoted laws in most US states, which determine that strong action is to be taken against whoever tries to boycott Israel,” Netanyahu said four years ago — a boast of which the Israeli government was so unashamed that the prime minister’s office reiterated it in an official tweet.

These weren’t empty words. One Georgia lawmaker flatly admitted that an Israeli consulate official “asked” her to introduce an amendment to the state’s anti–Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) law, aimed at blunting a legal challenge to it. Israel’s ambassador to the United States and the United Nations (UN) sent a letter to the governors of what were then the thirty-five states with anti-BDS laws asking them to sanction the ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s for ending sales of its products to illegal settlements in the West Bank.

Its strategic affairs ministry, which reports directly to Netanyahu, poured millions into the creation of an international legal network to fight the boycott movement in Europe and the United States, and more generally pressure and influence foreign countries’ policies toward Israel. It gave more than $1 million to a firm whose stated aim was to “influence foreign publics”  and “battle” BDS, and created an app for both that purpose and for launching pressure campaigns against the UN and other critics.

These are just the efforts that have been made public. It’s likely the Israeli government’s manipulation of US politics goes much deeper, given how closely it coordinates its political efforts with pro-Israel groups in the United States that are nominally private actors — including those, like the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC, that are not officially registered as foreign agents.

One can only imagine what Netanyahu and his team would say if it turned out the US government was financing and orchestrating the passage of laws in Israel curtailing the right of its citizens to speak freely, instead of simply wading into its elections.

Election Interference

But that’s not to say that Israel doesn’t also wade into US elections. Israeli election meddling in the United States is part of its increasingly aggressive efforts to influence US policy at the highest levels of government.

It’s easy to forget now, but one of the foundational scandals of the Russiagate fiasco — Trump’s national-security-advisor-to-be Michael Flynn phoning Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, and later lying to the FBI about it — was partially about Israel. Flynn’s ouster and later legal troubles were rooted in an attempt to shield Israel from international criticism, namely a UN security council resolution condemning Israel’s illegal settlements that then president Barack Obama planned to let through as a parting shot against Netanyahu. As the transcript of the call showed, Kislyak agreed, under Flynn’s urging, to try to “postpone the vote.”

Why did Flynn do this? Because he received a phone call telling him to do so from Jared Kushner, the president-elect’s son-in-law and advisor, whose pro-Israel donor father was so close to Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister had once slept in his bedroom. If this doesn’t make you raise your eyebrows, replace “Israel” and “Netanyahu” in that sentence with “Russia” and “Vladimir Putin” and see if you’d still feel the same.

The other reason was the many, many connections between the Trump campaign and the Israeli state.

The campaign’s voter outreach to Americans in Israel, who were viewed as crucial to swinging states that went red in 2016 like Florida and Pennsylvania, was led and staffed by a host of figures with ties to Netanyahu’s governing coalition. Two separate firms staffed by former Israeli Defense Forces officers — Psy-Group and Inspiration, the latter actually employed by a Trump-supporting Super PAC — presented candidate Trump with proposals for voter manipulation in swing states. One of Netanyahu’s political allies, billionaire Sheldon Adelson, poured more than $400 million into Trump’s campaign and those of his GOP allies before his death.

In fact, given the myriad ties to Israel (as well as to gulf states like the UAE and Saudi Arabia) among the cast of characters who would make up the Russiagate saga, there’s a much stronger case that the real story of foreign election interference and a “quid pro quo” in 2016 was about Israel.

Buried in Robert Mueller’s probe, as uncovered by James Bamford in the Nation, is evidence that Israeli agents, almost certainly officials close to Netanyahu himself, repeatedly and secretly contacted the Trump campaign to arrange meetings and feed them advance information about the coming WikiLeaks dump regarding Hillary Clinton. Little wonder that Netanyahu’s rival, Isaac Herzog (now serving as Israel’s president), accused him of trying to swing the result of the US election “through overseas proxies.”

Naturally, this was all largely ignored in favor of hyping the Russia story, even though virtually all of the elements of that scandal applied to Trump and Israel — and even though, unlike with Russia, Trump would proceed to bend over backward for Israel on actual policy as no president had before, in an abrupt reversal of his public vow months earlier to be “a neutral guy” in mediating the conflict.

Netanyahu’s (at least public) silence in the 2016 election wasn’t out of principle, but likely because he had learned his lesson from the last time he had interfered in a US election, in 2012.

That year, in what centrist columnist Joe Klein called “an unprecedented attempt by a putative American ally to influence a US presidential campaign,” Netanyahu publicly criticized Obama’s foreign policy — criticisms that then wound up as sound bites in GOP attack ads — and drummed up scandals he and his people fed to the press. All the while, Netanyahu heaped praise on Republican nominee Mitt Romney, an old friend he had known since his time at the Boston Consulting Group in the 1970s. The effort was widely remarked upon, including by Netanyahu’s own political rivals in Israel, who admonished him over his “rude, blunt, unprecedented, wanton and dangerous intervention in the United States election” and for carrying out “a significant breach of the basic rules” governing US-Israel ties.

There are hints such election meddling wasn’t limited to this century, nor to Netanyahu. Israeli officials have long been alleged to have been part of the 1980 “October surprise” plot that led to Jimmy Carter’s defeat — for decades dismissed as a baseless conspiracy theory until it was recently confirmed by the New York Times — in which the Ronald Reagan campaign made a secret deal with the Iranian government to delay the release of American hostages until after that year’s presidential election in exchange for US weapons, for which Israel would act as a go-between.

As the late Robert Parry reported, the antipathy of the right-wing Menachem Begin government in Israel toward Carter was well-known, including by Carter himself, who told Congressional investigators a decade later that he felt that “Israel cast their lot with Reagan” by early 1980.

Israel and the press challenged the credibility of ex–intelligence agent Ari Ben-Menashe, who claimed that Israeli officials brokered the meeting between the Reagan camp and Iranian revolutionaries, and that Begin had authored a memo ordering his advisors to work with them. But what isn’t disputed is that Israel did indeed start shipping US-made weapons to Iran shortly after the hostages were released (who themselves won freedom, suspiciously, mere minutes after Reagan was sworn in), thanks to the incoming administration secretly and suddenly changing US policy to allow it.

Notably, last year the Times reported in its October surprise exposé that, when one of Reagan’s allies toured the Middle East telling leaders to let the Iranians know they should wait for a better hostage deal when Reagan wins, he did so “at every stop in the region” — except Israel.

The Russiagate scandal of 2016 set off eight years and counting of hawkish foreign policy on the basis that Moscow’s election interference that year constituted an “attack.” So what can you say about Israel, which interfered in not just that year’s election but several others?

Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran

These close ties between segments of US and Israeli governing factions haven’t just affected elections but have influenced US policy. Nowhere is this clearer than when it comes to Iran.

Commentators usually point to Netanyahu’s 2015 speech to Congress opposing Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, and with good reason. A nakedly partisan speech on US soil, cooked up in collaboration with the president’s political opposition and aimed at undermining one of his signature foreign policy goals, the move was widely denounced as an unprecedented act of political meddling by a foreign government.

But the speech was only the showiest attempt by Netanyahu to torpedo Obama’s Iran deal. Arguably more outrageous was Israel spying on US-Iran negotiations, going all the way up to the US secretary of state, then leaking what they had overheard to Republican lawmakers and others who opposed the agreement.

“It is one thing for the US and Israel to spy on each other. It is another thing for Israel to steal US secrets and play them back to US legislators to undermine US diplomacy,” one US official told the Wall Street Journal.

US officials learned that Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer — who also happened to be a US-born former Republican operative — went on to coach nominally independent pro-Israel groups on which talking points to use to sway members of Congress against the deal, whom Israeli officials also pressured. The Israeli side asked undecided lawmakers questions like “How can we get your vote?” and “What’s it going to take?” one US intelligence official said.

These efforts extended past the Obama years, with Israeli officials continuing to pressure the US government to abandon the Iran deal and go to war with the country under Biden, and they stretch all the way back to the George W. Bush years. Even as the Israeli government warned the Bush administration not to invade Iraq, they did so by making the case that it should attack Iran instead.

According to former AIPAC lobbyist Keith Weissman, the Likud government of Ariel Sharon that was then in power in Israel was “trying to unduly influence the United States” by “sending a lot of Iranian exiles to the United States from Europe to give talks, purporting to be Iranian leaders.”

Of course, not everyone in Israeli official circles was cautioning against the Iraq War. Netanyahu, then a private citizen, urged Congress to carry out regime change in both Iran and Iraq, while the Bush administration sourced some of its dubious intelligence about Iraq from what the Guardian called an “ad hoc intelligence operation inside Ariel Sharon’s office” that was far less cautious with its intelligence claims than the Mossad. It was an outgrowth of the long-standing Israeli and specifically Likud ties among some of Bush’s most hawkish neoconservative officials like Douglas Feith and Richard Perle, who had served as Likud advisors and even lobbied for Israeli weapons manufacturers.

Decades before this, in what is now a largely forgotten element of the Reagan-era scandal, Israel was knee-deep in the Iran-Contra affair. Reagan officials like George Shultz would later charge that Israel had “suckered” the administration into the episode, and while there’s more than a whiff of self-serving buck-passing in statements like these, it is true that the idea of trading weapons to Iran for hostages originated from Israeli intelligence.

The idea — according to both reporting and testimony from those implicated in Iran-Contra, as contained in an report by the Senate Intelligence Committee — was the brainchild of Manucher Ghorbanifar, an Iranian exile, arms dealer, and double agent who worked for Israel’s Mossad and had been recommended to the administration by David Kimche, a Mossad veteran and former head of Israel’s foreign affairs ministry who had long pushed for the policy of secretly selling arms to Iran. It was Ghorbanifar, too, who together with various Israeli government officials suggested diverting the proceeds from the weapons sales to the Nicaraguan Contras, as a sweetener to get the Reagan administration on board with the plan.

In the process, Israel got what it wanted: continued funneling of arms to Iran, with which Israeli officials hoped they could reestablish friendly relations and whose armed forces they hoped would overthrow its revolutionary government — a plan “to bring about a more moderate government in Iran,” as Iran-Contra player Oliver North explained in a memo to Reagan’s national security advisor. Not for nothing did then vice president George H. W. Bush express concern in the course of the scheme about how far US interests “were in the grip of the Israelis.”

This was not the last time Ghorbanifar, the Israeli agent, would pop up in the context of US policy toward Iran. In the 2000s, he put hawkish Bush officials bent on a more aggressive posture toward the country in touch with Iranian exiles several times, including one who made up tales of Iran-sponsored terrorism plots against the United States — and who later turned out to work for Ghorbanifar.

There is arguably no decision that a country can take that’s more consequential than going to war. Yet the Israeli government has for decades been leveraging what influence it has to push the United States to do exactly that, and potentially embroil the US public in yet another disastrous Middle East quagmire.

A Hostile Foreign Intelligence Service

Incidentally, one of the Bush officials Ghorbanifar acted as a liaison for was Larry Franklin, a Pentagon analyst who wanted the administration to take a harder line on Iran. In 2004, that same Larry Franklin was indicted for passing on classified information — specifically, about Iranian plans to turn the impending Iraq War into a US quagmire — to a pair of AIPAC lobbyists, who he hoped would relay it to higher-ranking US officials and ultimately move the administration toward a policy of regime change in Iran. The lobbyists in turn passed that and other information on to an Israeli diplomat.

They and civil liberties defenders maintained they were only doing something that happens regularly on a daily basis in Washington, and that they were not spying for Israel, as prosecutors charged. That may have been true. But what happened next was far from regular.

As the case wound its way through the justice system, California Democratic Rep. Jane Harman — an AIPAC favorite — was caught on a wiretap telling a suspected Israeli agent that, at his urging, she would “waddle into” the case to lobby the Justice Department to reduce charges against the two. In return, the agent told her, he would lobby then House minority leader Nancy Pelosi to make her intelligence committee chair if Democrats won back the House a year later (though Harman never became intelligence committee chair, and she denied ever actually following up on the request).

It was a rare case of a Washington open secret breaking through into the public eye: that, as one ex–intelligence official put it, “there is a huge, aggressive, ongoing set of Israeli activities directed against the United States,” one that “has been extensive for years,” as a former top US official told Newsweek. US spies once told members of Congress behind closed doors that, as one staffer relayed to the outlet, “no other country close to the United States continues to cross the line on espionage like the Israelis do”; staffers came out of that briefing calling the testimony about Israeli spying “damaging,” and “alarming . . . even terrifying.”

Israeli intelligence activities go so far that classified government documents describe Israel as a “hostile” foreign intelligence service and list it as a top US cybersecurity threat. Most of it is about stealing industrial secrets. But, as Israel’s attempted sabotage of the Iran deal shows, not always.

The Jonathan Pollard case is the most famous, in which a US defense analyst sold US intelligence to the Israeli government — what the prosecutor on the case called “the largest physical compromise of United States classified information in the twentieth century.” But at various times, Israel has been accused of trying to recruit US intelligence officials, of trying to probe government officials’ weaknesses (“The drugs, women coming to your hotel room — they throw everything at you. No matter how high the official,” according to a former spy), of trying to bug then vice president Al Gore’s hotel room in Israel, and of planting cell-phone surveillance devices around the White House under Trump.

Each time, they would get away with what could only generously be described as a slap on the wrist. As one former FBI counterintelligence specialist who worked on the Pollard case later explained, “the Israelis were supremely confident that they had the clout, especially on the Hill, to basically get [away] with just about anything.”

One story is particularly salacious. Based on interviews with former officials and documents that were put together by Monica Lewinsky’s legal team as a contingency, former Weekly Standard online editor Daniel Halper wrote that Israel had ended up with tapes of Clinton having X-rated conversations with his intern — tapes whose existence Israel made known to the president, as Netanyahu (then prime minister) pulled him aside to push for Pollard’s release. Halper further claimed that Clinton folded under the veiled threat, and that the only reason Pollard wasn’t freed was because CIA director George Tenet threatened to resign.

It’s not as outlandish as it sounds. Reporting at the time had it that Clinton, who had already said no to releasing Pollard twice before, this time agreed to Netanyahu’s demand but backed down in the face of Tenet’s resignation threat, on top of a revolt from other current and former national security officials and even Republican members of Congress. Clinton’s change of heart on the matter was explained by Netanyahu threatening to walk away from the peace agreement then being negotiated. But a White House spokesperson also said that Clinton had been “impressed by the force of Mr. Netanyahu’s arguments,” and the result was what the press called hours of “heated exchanges” and “tense discussions” between Clinton and Netanyahu that held up the signing ceremony and were unrelated to the Palestinians.

On firmer ground is the fact that the Israeli government spies on and uses intimidation tactics against pro-Palestinian activists in the United States.

A never-broadcast Al Jazeera documentary saw members of what were meant to be independent pro-Israel organizations, including AIPAC, admit to an undercover reporter — posing as an Oxford graduate weighing recruitment — that they worked with Israel’s ministry of strategic affairs to collect information about Israel critics’ private lives, and publicly defame them and potentially derail their careers. The head of the ministry publicly stated that “we have” the Foundation for Defense of Democracies — a hawkish right-wing think tank — and “others working on this,” and that the goal was to get anyone “who has anything to do with BDS” to ask themselves, “Should I be on this side or do I want to be on the other side?”

One of those groups is the Israel on Campus Coalition, which fights against BDS at US universities by compiling dossiers on and launching public smear campaigns against pro-Palestinian students and academics to “crush them,” in the words of its executive director Jacob Baime. The group’s sole board member and top donor once requested permission from the Department of Justice to fly to Israel and meet with Netanyahu while he was prime minister, and Baime and others involved in the coalition openly told Al Jazeera’s undercover reporter that the groups “coordinates with” and shares information with the Israeli government, including Israeli intelligence and its ministries of strategic and foreign affairs.

Take a moment to consider the extent and nature of Israeli spying in the United States, and the resentment with which US officials and intelligence operatives regard it — along with the fact that none of them feel confident to share these feelings publicly.

Union of Lobby and State

This spying campaign is just one vivid illustration of how the vast pro-Israel lobby in the United States — generally considered one of the most powerful lobbies on Capitol Hill, if not the most powerful — has close ties to the Israeli state, making it another, especially potent element of Israel’s meddling in US politics. We’ve already seen others, like Israeli officials coordinating with pro-Israel groups to derail the Iran deal, the AIPAC lobbyists prosecuted for passing on classified intelligence to the Israeli embassy, and the Israeli government’s support for private groups working to pass anti-BDS laws.

These were among the reasons that lawyer Stuart Eizenstat — who served as an advisor to Carter and is himself part of the pro-Israel lobby — described a “special triangular relationship” between Israel, pro-Israel groups in the United States, and the US Congress in pushing the president on policy, one that was “unique in the annals of diplomacy.” In Eizenstat’s book about the Carter years, he discussed what he called “an amazing intrusion into domestic politics by a foreign minister” when Israel’s Moshe Dayan, in the words of Carter’s then liaison to the Jewish community, “orchestrated” a “firestorm” against Carter by pro-Israel groups in the United States opposed to his push for a peace plan in 1977.

“I think you have a problem on your hands, Mr. President. And I can perhaps help you out with it,” Dayan reportedly told Carter, adding that while “many of our friends are upset” by Carter’s announcement, if he reversed himself, “I could help you politically.” Dayan got his wish.

This relationship between the Israeli state and pro-Israel groups has only become more direct in recent years, with the Israeli government funding think tanks and pro-Israel groups pushing state propaganda and opposing BDS — including, in one case, an anti-Muslim hate group in Tennessee.

That relationship is no closer than in Israel’s ties to the most powerful lobby of all: AIPAC, which has become less an arm of the Israeli political establishment than an arm of one, right-wing faction of it — the one that has almost exclusively governed the country this century. This is the evaluation of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, whose lead editorial in August last year declared that AIPAC “has become an operational wing of Netanyahu’s far-right government.” Another of the paper’s longtime columnists called AIPAC a “pro-Netanyahu lobby.”

A high-ranking Democrat close to AIPAC told the New Yorker as recently as 2014 that “there are people in AIPAC who believe that it should be an arm of the Likud, an arm of the Republican Party.” But this has arguably been the case since at least the Clinton years. AIPAC’s former legislative director and chief lobbyist Douglas Bloomfield described “how closely [AIPAC] coordinated with Benjamin Netanyahu in the 1990s, when he led the Israeli Likud opposition and later when he was prime minister, to impede the Oslo peace process” being championed by Clinton and Israel’s Labor government, and how it left AIPAC running the risk of illegally acting as an unregistered foreign agent. This is partly why the FBI’s Bush-era case against the two AIPAC lobbyists was part of a much larger probe around foreign interference that went back to the late ’90s.

One of those lobbyists, the aforementioned Keith Weissman, himself outlined to PBS how “the right wing in Israel” would “come over and have very close contacts with AIPAC’s leaders, prominent financiers, and donors, in order to influence policy.” The result was that AIPAC “did not have a lot of people who you would call Labor” and became dominated by wealthy right-wing donors, who “were major elements in making policy, in determining the agenda, who the leadership was.”

By the time Labor prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was killed in 1995 over his support for the peace process, he said, “AIPAC had spent the last fifteen years helping the Likud.”

Still, AIPAC was considered so close to the Israeli state more generally that at one point in 2000, when Israel’s then justice minister visited Washington to ask for the release of funds Clinton had promised Israel, he was shocked to hear Clinton’s national security advisor ask him if he knew “somebody in AIPAC,” because they would need the support of Congress to free up the money.

“It was kind of Kafka — the US national security adviser is asking the minister of justice in Israel whether he knows somebody at AIPAC!” he later recalled.

Acceptable Meddling

If the government and officials involved in even a single one of any of these instances were Russian, Chinese, Iranian, or any of the other names on the foreign policy establishment’s ever-expanding list of global adversaries, it would prompt a media meltdown, Congressional investigations, and probably threats of war. But because it’s Israel, this brazen, decades-long, and still ongoing political meddling goes largely unremarked and accepted as normal.

It’s worrying enough that a foreign government — and increasingly, its right-wing faction — has such sway over the US political establishment. That Israel does so while bleating about outside meddling in its affairs, all while simultaneously demanding handouts from US taxpayers, makes it positively absurd.