Hawkish Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon on Sunday accused "English-speakers" of plotting against the government in the run-up to the country's parliamentary election, drawing criticism from leftist movements and other opponents.
Yaalon made the statement at an event at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliyaon just ten days before the March 17 elections. The minister, who joined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party in 2009 after 37 years of service in the Israeli army, also accused non-profit organizations "funded by foreign money" of trying to influence the outcome of the upcoming election.
"There is an unprecedented campaign here to encourage left-wing and Arab voters [to go to the polls]," Yaalon told the crowd gathered at the private university for his talk. "And English-speakers are the ones who are doing it."
Yaalon's accusation echoes a similar claim made by Netanyahu earlier this month that "very powerful organizations with foreign funding in the tens of millions of shekels" are trying to "topple the Likud" and comes just days after thousands of Israelis attended an anti-government rally on Saturday.
Saturday's protest brought around 35,000 Israelis to Tel Aviv's central Rabin Square under the banner, "Israel Wants Change." High-ranking former security service officials speaking at the event condemned Netanyahu's policies as "frightening" and accused him of creating an "apartheid" society. Attendees at the event from across the political spectrum expressed differing concerns, ranging from the high cost of living to the stagnated peace negotiations with the Palestinians, but all agreed that Netanyahu should not get a fourth mandate to lead the country.
"People here may be voting for different parties but we all agree on one thing: Enough is enough and it's time for Bibi to go," said 27 year-old Daniel Liebermann, a US-born Israeli law student.
Israel's election is currently a neck-and-neck race with polls showing just a couple of seats separating Netanyahu's Likud and the Zionist Union a center-left alliance of Hatnuah and the Labor Party.
Addressing accusations of foreign funding, demonstration organizer Dror Ben-Ami told VICE that Yaalon's allegations were "ridiculous spin" that smacked of "defensiveness and anxiety."
Ben Ami, co-founder of non-profit called "One Million Hands," said his organization received "substantial donations from individuals in the US and Australia," but that most of the group's funding came from inside Israel.
He also pointed out that right-wing institutions also receive foreign funding. Israel HaYom, a pro-Netanyahu newspaper, is owned by American billionaire Sheldon Adelson. Ben Ami said Defense Minister Yaalon was creating a "double-standard."
"For Likud it's very easy to point the finger at grassroots organizations on the left but exactly the same laws apply to NGOs working on the left and the right" said Israeli-born Dror, who has also lived in the US and Australia. "All our finances are strictly by the book."
Yossi Mekelberg, an expert on Israeli politics at Chatham House, said the Israeli defense minister's statement was an "attempt to incite against the left by questioning their loyalty and patriotism while offering zero evidence for the claim."
"It's absurd and it's taking the election campaign to the gutter," Mekelberg said.
Netanyahu's Likud party has also been taking potshots at another leftist non-profit movement, called "Victory 15" (V15), which has spearheaded a campaign to increase leftist and centrist voter turnout on election day.
Victory 15 started out after Nimrod Dweck, one of the movements founders, posted a request "to do something for the elections" on Facebook. But the group of young activists quickly attracted the attentions of One Voice - a New York-based non-profit working for a two-state solution - which brought in international funding and hotshot campaign management, including Jeremy Bird, an advisor to the 2012 Obama election campaign.
Likud launched five court cases against V15 in the first two months of 2015 for alleged campaign law violations, but all were thrown out of court due to lack of evidence. "It's ridiculous. We've done nothing illegal," One Voice's Chief Executive in Israel, Polly Bronstein, told VICE News.
The right-wing watchdog group NGO Monitor concurred, and said that while V15's registration in the US might makes it financially "non-transparent," it was not doing anything "in violation of the law."
"Israel is very much penetrated by foreign money...across the political spectrum, right and left," Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor, told VICE News. "The lawsuit brought by Likud went too far with it claims and went well beyond the facts."
Steinberg also said that right-wing Israeli political organizations had pressured the NGO Monitor to back the claims against V15, but "the evidence just wasn't there," he said.
One Voice Chief Executive Bronstein said Likud had only spurred more interest in the movement's campaign against the prime minister.
"It was great publicity, donations started pouring in from all over Israel and abroad, thousands of people phoned in to volunteer," she said. "When all this is done I'm going to buy Bibi's lawyers a big bunch of flowers to say thanks."
Netanyahu also came under fire on Monday after it was reported that the prime minister's office issued a statement stating that the creation of a Palestinian state was "no longer relevant in the current Middle East." The statement represents a backtrack on his famous "Bar Ilan" speech of 2009 in which he expressed support for "a demilitarized Palestinian state." However, the prime minister's office later insisted that statement did not reverse the Bar Ilan speech.
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