In mid-July, two prominent Republicans were enjoying the goods at a boutique winery in the Israeli settlement Psagot in the West Bank. Former George W. Bush White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer and Republican Jewish Coalition director Matt Brooks weren’t on vacation, but touring Israel in an effort to lobby American citizens to vote for Mitt Romney in November. Their hosts? “iVoteIsrael,” a group aiming to get Americans in Israel to cast ballots in the upcoming presidential election.
Launched by a group of American immigrants, iVoteIsrael believes Israelis “need a president in the White House who will stand by Israel in absolute commitment to its safety, security and right to defend itself.” The campaign facilitates online registration and collects absentee ballots at its many drop-box locations—including in settlements like Maale Adumim and Gush Etzion—which will then be mailed to the U.S. on voters’ behalf. But iVoteIsrael’s close ties to Republican officials, demagogic messaging and pro-settlement proclivities all point to a partisan bent—and their handling of absentee ballots may be in violation of U.S elections law.
The campaign comes at a fraught moment in the U.S.-Israel relationship, with Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at loggerheads over Iran policy, just as they clashed over settlements two years ago. Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney, on the other hand, said he would never criticize Israel publicly or take any policy decisions without consulting with Netanyahu. Romney’s contention that Obama “threw Israel under the bus” because of public opposition to settlements and insufficient bellicosity toward Iran aligns him with positions held by Netanyahu and the Israeli right, including Israel’s decidedly Republican Jewish-American population.
With 163,000 eligible American voters living throughout Israel and the West Bank—as many as 10,000 registered just in the crucial battleground state of Florida—a strong showing of absentee voters from the Holy Land could swing the election. And iVoteIsrael knows it, spotlighting slim electoral margins in its messaging and citing the controversial 2000 Gore-Bush standoff decided by a few hundred absentee ballots in Florida.
Likening iVoteIsrael to any other registration drive, national director Elie Pieprz, a resident of the settlement Alon Shvut, told me the campaign just helps people vote. “We don’t tell people who to vote for,” said Pieprz, who until recently served as the director of media relations for Republicans Abroad Israel. “We say, ‘Go out and vote for Israel.’” Yet a video posted on his group’s Youtube and Facebook pages featured a message from former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, a Romney advisor, explicitly endorsing the Republican nominee. No similar message champions Obama or mentions plaudits given the president by Israeli officials or the Israel lobby AIPAC.
Frances Hill, a law professor at the University of Miami, told me that, while iVoteIsrael is permitted to engage in “independent expenditure” on behalf of Romney, its offer to mail ballots is inconsistent with her understanding of how absentee votes should be handled. “I’ve never heard of a non-profit serving as a ballot broker. Why are they collecting the ballots? This is not the way we handle our absentee ballots—it should be administered by a government official,” she said. “The ballot brokers I know are sitting in a south Florida jail.” Like other legal experts, she said the process of voting absentee is highly regulated, casting doubt on the validity of absentee ballots if there is a break in what is called the “chain of custody” between the voter and the mailbox.
iVoteIsrael was launched this year by a shadowy non-profit called Americans for Jerusalem. The group’s only Internet paper trail consists of a scant website with no listed staff or address. (Pieprz declined to give any further details.) Its non-profit status allows iVoteIsrael to avoid disclosing donors, but its operations are clearly well-funded. Several months ago, a strategic consultant to the campaign suggested to me the donors were major Jewish philanthropists: the “Adelsons of the world,” he said, referring to billionaire casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, one of this election’s largest Republican donors and owner of Israel Hayom, an Israeli daily known for supporting Netanyahu’s government.
Unlike their overwhelmingly Democratic co-religionists in the U.S., the majority of Americans in Israel vote Republican, according to Mitchell Barak, the head of Kevoon, a survey firm in Israel. In the 2008 election, about 30,000 Americans in Israel voted absentee, of which a significant majority selected McCain (76 percent, compared with 78 percent for Obama in the U.S.). A recent article in Israel National News, a settler-run outfit, reported that iVoteIsrael expects between 50,000 and 70,000 to vote in this election. As for how many of the 163,000 registered voters are non-Jewish Arab-Americans (excluding West Bank Palestinians), Barak said it was difficult to say, and fair to assume Palestinian-Americans with Israeli citizenship weren’t being targeted by iVoteIsrael.
As a 501(c)4, the campaign is permitted to engage in issue-based political activities, but barred from making it their primary activity or advocating for a specific candidate, according to Boston College law professor Brian Galle. “There is a debate about what ‘primary activity’ means and the government’s ability to audit this activity is limited,” he said. Taking stock of the full range of iVoteIsrael’s activities will need to wait until the fiscal year closes at the end of December.
While the campaign hasn’t yet hosted any high-profile Democrats, they held debates featuring Democrats Abroad in Israel representative Sheldon Schorer speaking alongside Republicans Abroad Israel’s head. Schorer, who has been active with Democrats in Israel since 1988, said he welcomes iVoteIsrael’s existence and doesn’t see partisanship. “Their main program, as I understand it, is getting out the vote,” he told me. The tone of some of their ads makes him a bit uncomfortable, but Schorer sees no problem with the campaign’s credibility and was unfazed by Pieprz’s residence in a settlement.
Some Democrats, however, were bothered by iVoteIsrael’s seeming alignment with the American and Israeli right, even to the point of refusing to use the campaign’s services. Elka Looks, who lives in Tel Aviv, used the iVoteIsrael site—despite suspecting its proclivities—to register for an absentee ballot. She was recently surprised to receive a solicitation e-mail from Republicans Abroad Israel (RAI) addressing her, and over 1,000 others copied on the note, as RAI members. “When I called the number at the bottom of the email, I was informed, as I suspected, that iVoteIsrael had disclosed my personal information to them without my consent,” she said. After replying to everyone on the email to warn them, she received over a dozen replies from people confirming they too had registered through the campaign and were dismayed to learn their private information was somehow disclosed.
RAI representative Kory Bardash denied any voter information was passed on from iVoteIsrael, and insists this was a mistake made by a secretary, who must have accidentally merged a current member list with an inactive list of contacts. That doesn’t explain, though, how Looks got added to the RAI list or why the secretary confirmed that names were pulled from iVoteIsrael’s database. iVoteIsrael released a statement a day after my inquiry denying they shared any personal data with a third party. According to Galle, the BC law professor, providing value to political party without remuneration constitutes permitted electioneering. “The problem is with the way the law is written, or with the way the IRS is enforcing it,” he said. “They are an example of a rule that is not working.”
iVoteIsrael elicits mixed reactions even from some Republicans. An orthodox Republican living in the settlement of Efrat told me she will not vote because she is registered in a decidedly Democratic state, while others said they don’t feel right having such an impact on American politics considering they have chosen to make their homes in Israel. Mike Gold, a Republican from Virginia who’s lived in Modi’in for five years, demurred: “I am especially motivated in this election, as it essential that Obama be driven from the White House, and I am registered in a swing state.” Though unfamiliar with their messaging, Gold used iVoteIsrael’s ballot drop-box.
As for whether iVoteIsrael’s director thinks his residence in a settlement hurts the campaign’s credibility, Pieprz asked whether he should also be disqualified as nonpartisan because his previous home in Washington State is “solidly Democratic.” He added, “The idea that, as a Jew, I should be prohibited from living in a certain area is and should be repugnant to Israelis, but it certainly is to Americans. But that has nothing to do with the campaign to register voters.” Yet American governments of both parties have long viewed his current homestead as illegitimate. While he preaches the importance of exercising one’s democratic rights, his Palestinian neighbors live under Israeli authority but don’t share any of Pieprz’s citizenship rights. And as far as I know, Republicans in Washington State are still allowed to vote.
The legal experts I spoke with believe the IRS has reason to be suspicious about iVoteIsrael. “Taking everything they are doing into account, if the government wanted to bring about a suit, it would have a good case,” said Boston College’s Galle. However, because of the murkiness surrounding what constitutes legitimate political advocacy of 501(c)4 organizations, iVoteIsrael’s conduct might not ever undergo examination. As the University of Miami’s Hill suggested, “I think the IRS should put this group on its ever-growing list of 501(c)4s whose conduct raises reasonable questions about appropriateness of tax exempt status. This is a U.S. problem.” That may be so. But if iVoteIsrael gets it way, the 2012 election could be decided from Israel.