Soros: A Small Sacrifice for Netanyahu
This the final part of a multi-part series. The first installments of the series, included in our last issue, were The Vilification of George Soros in Israel, and No, Holocaust Survivor George Soros was not a Nazi.
Additional reporting on this story was done by Anis Modi and Wesley G. Pippert.
In the first installment, Moment told the story of how George Soros, who was 13 when the Nazis invaded his native Hungary, survived the Holocaust. We explored his evolving relationship with Judaism and his Jewish identity, and the lessons he took away from his youth, including his belief that Jews and other minorities would be more secure in open, democratic societies. We traced his gradually deepening interest in Israel, culminating in a 1994 visit that left him optimistic about a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. After these hopes faded in the 2000s, the billionaire hedge fund manager and liberal philanthropist set aside his reservations about criticizing Israeli government policies with which he disagreed. His network of Open Society Foundations, already supporting democracy-strengthening initiatives in Russia and Eastern Europe, began also to support civil society organizations in Israel. At the same time, Soros became an outspoken supporter of—and a major donor to—Democratic candidates and causes in the United States. In the process, he made powerful enemies, among them Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first public branding of George Soros as anti-Israel was in July 2017. Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party had launched an anti-Soros campaign, which featured ads depicting a grinning Soros with the caption: “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh.” Instead of coming to the defense of the Holocaust survivor or keeping silent, Netanyahu countermanded his own ambassador to Hungary, who had condemned the ads as anti-Semitic at the urging of the country’s Jewish community. The billboard campaign “evokes sad memories but also sows hatred and fear,” wrote Ambassador Yossi Amrani in a Facebook post. Only hours later, at Netanyahu’s direction, the Israeli Foreign Ministry issued a statement. “Soros,” it charged, “continuously undermines Israel’s democratically elected governments” and funds organizations “that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself.” This reference was to legally registered Israeli non-governmental organizations (NGOs), many of which are critical of the policies of Netanyahu’s government.
Next, taking a cue from Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, Netanyahu blamed Soros for funding protests against his government’s handling of the planned deportation of 40,000 Sudanese and Eritrean asylum-seekers in Israel. He presented this accusation, without evidence, during a February 2018 meeting of his Likud party ministers. In April, he posted on Facebook that Soros and his foundations were supporting groups “hostile to the State of Israel” and that the New Israel Fund (NIF), an American organization that provides grants to liberal Israeli civil society groups (and which received funding from Soros’s Open Society Foundations until 2016) had pressured Rwanda to back out of an agreement that would have allowed Israel to deport the refugees there. A day later, Olivier Nduhungirehe, then-Rwandan deputy foreign minister tweeted that he was “extremely surprised” by Netanyahu’s statement, since the Rwandan government “doesn’t even know what this
@NewIsraelFund is all about.”
“Netanyahu has used my father as a political punching bag and has whitewashed anti-Semitic attacks against him by his home country of Hungary. Israel is supposed to defend all Jews, whether or not they are Israeli citizens, and Netanyahu has not fulfilled his duty to do so.”
Last September, Netanyahu made an even more serious charge, accusing Soros of conspiring with Iran against Israel. He did this on Facebook by sharing an article alleging that “Soros’s Open Society Foundations work in full cooperation with the Iranian government.” The story came from Israel Hayom—the free daily founded in 2007 by Sheldon Adelson, the American billionaire casino mogul and conservative philanthropist, and his wife Miriam—which almost always reflects Netanyahu’s point of view. It was refuted that same day as stemming from an old Iranian conspiracy theory being used by Tehran hardliners to try to discredit Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a moderate. The reporting was based on a bad translation of Zarif’s testimony before the Iranian parliament, tweeted Nadav Eyal, chief international correspondent for Israel’s Channel 10. “I should add that Soros himself probably has/had exactly the same opinion of the Iranian regime as does Netanyahu…His organizations are banned in Iran,” Eyal wrote. “So it’s laughable to suggest Iran ‘confirming’ working with him.”
People close to Netanyahu have also participated in the anti-Soros campaign. During the summer of 2017, Miki Zohar, a Member of the Knesset from the prime minister’s Likud Party, pushed a bill that would have restricted funding sources for Israeli NGOs. Dubbed the “Soros Law,” it was modeled on a similar law passed in Russia in 2012 that targeted NGOs out of sync with government policy. The Israeli version didn’t pass, says Shuki Taussig, editor of the Israeli media watchdog The Seventh Eye, because legislators realized it would also have curtailed contributions to right-leaning NGOs. A few months later, Netanyahu’s 27-year-old son, Yair, reposted an anti-Soros cartoon loaded with anti-Semitic imagery on Facebook. The post depicted three figures: a grotesque hook-nosed Jew, a reptilian creature and a caricature of Soros as a puppet master pulling the strings of Israeli leaders, including former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The post was later removed, but not before it was gleefully shared by anti-Semites of many stripes, including former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard and neo-Nazi David Duke.
“We see Soros as a dangerous man who does unfair and indecent things,” Eli Hazan, director of international relations for Netanyahu’s Likud party, told The Jerusalem Post in December 2017, following an admission that he had provided the Hungarian government with intelligence about Soros’s work in Israel before the launch of the Fidesz anti-Soros campaign. He did this, he now says, because he is convinced that legally registered Israeli NGOs that are funded by Soros’s OSF are anti-Israel. “The Palestinian legal center Adalah provides lawyers to murderers and to would-be suicide bombers—terrorists,” Hazan says. Adalah (which means “justice” in Arabic) is an independent human rights organization and legal center that serves Palestinians within Israel, as well as those who are under Israeli jurisdiction. “This is not the official position of the party,” Hazan adds, “but many in the Likud share this view, and even the prime minister has spoken about it. I know it sounds odd in the United States, but we are under terrorist attack, and in Israel these are very sensitive issues. When I see that Soros contributed money to protect terrorists, I will find any legitimate way to hurt him.”
“Netanyahu needs a bogeyman. From the inside, outside, wherever he can find them, it’s good for him. The big one is Iran. There is the Israeli left, there is Obama in the United States. Soros is one of them. In a world of bogeymen, Netanyahu’s safe.”
Although never an Israel insider, Soros has nonetheless met with previous Israeli leaders over the years such as Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Olmert without encountering similar hostility. “The viciousness of the attack on Soros was quite unique,” says Nahum Barnea, a veteran Israeli journalist for the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot and a 2007 Israel Prize winner. Asked if any other prime minister had singled out Soros the way that Netanyahu has, Yossi Beilin, who has served in various cabinet positions including minister of justice in previous Israeli governments, replied “No way!” Beilin, a longtime advocate for a two-state solution, says that the accusation that Soros funds terrorism is “ludicrous,” adding that Soros is a “terrific person, whose views and ideology are not far from mine.”
Alex Soros, George Soros’s second-youngest son, is disturbed that the Israeli prime minister, who has never met his father, chose to join the worldwide chorus of anti-Soros voices rising up from the right. “Netanyahu has used my father as a political punching bag and has whitewashed anti-Semitic attacks against him by his home country of Hungary,” says the younger Soros, speaking on behalf of his family. “Israel is supposed to defend all Jews, whether or not they are Israeli citizens and no matter what their political beliefs or orientations are, and Netanyahu has not fulfilled his duty to do so.”
Says Beilin: “Netanyahu needs a bogeyman. From the inside, outside, wherever he can find them, it’s good for him. The big one is Iran, then there is the left in Israel, and there is Obama and the United States. Soros is one of them. In a world of bogeymen, Netanyahu’s safe.”
Why Soros Is Singled Out
Why has Netanyahu singled out Soros and his foundation network—which gives $3 million a year, a relatively modest sum, to groups in Israel—from among other Jewish philanthropists who also fund initiatives, and even candidates, who are not his political cup of tea?
Observers cite a number of reasons for Netanyahu’s antagonism. One is that it sends a signal to powerful Soros enemies, among them Orbán and Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as leaders in Poland and Slovakia. “Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is really very important to Netanyahu, and Netanyahu wasn’t going to let the wishes of the [Hungarian] Jewish community get in the way of building his relationship with Orbán,” says Anshel Pfeffer, a British-Israeli journalist and author of the 2018 book Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu. “The two men share quite a few ideological points in their nationalism and opposition to globalism, such as their dislike for refugee-based immigration.”
“What Netanyahu is trying to do is change the policies of the European Union toward his government,” says Yediot Aharonot’s Barnea. “He’s trying to exploit [Eastern European countries] to counter countries like France and Spain that are more critical of Israel, and to counter the basic view in Brussels that the European Union should help the Palestinian Authority and that the Occupation is wrong.” Netanyahu hopes that Orbán will be his main ally in this quest, says Barnea.
Whether this is a smart strategy is debatable. Increased Holocaust revisionism by Eastern European governments has proved a stumbling block: In February, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki canceled his visit to Israel over critical remarks that Netanyahu made about Poland’s role in the Holocaust. In addition, Netanyahu’s view of the European Union (EU) is shortsighted, says William Echikson, director of the Brussels office of the European Union for Progressive Judaism. He argues that EU leaders are more open to Israel than they were in the past, and that stronger ties would lead to more trade. Some make another argument against Netanyahu’s European strategy. “Israel is betting on the support of autocratic regimes like Russia and Hungary at the expense of the United States and its European allies,” says one former senior-level official in the U.S. State Department. “But when push comes to shove and Israel needs support in the clutch, will it be able to rely on regimes who base their foreign policy strictly on realpolitik, as opposed to shared values? If, God forbid, there is another Yom Kippur War, would Putin bail Israel out the way the U.S. did in 1973?”
Netanyahu also has domestic reasons for targeting Soros. “Throwing Soros under the bus” and targeting NGOs has helped Netanyahu unify his political base on the right and distract from corruption charges he faces, Barnea suggests. Soros, he adds, is a perfect foil because his philanthropy is focused on the somewhat abstract goal of open societies, and he doesn’t fund Israeli institutions such as hospitals, museums and universities. As a result, he doesn’t have a large fan base. “Bibi doesn’t attack Haim Saban [the Hollywood mogul and Democratic donor who generously supports organizations such as Friends of the Israel Defense Forces],” says Barnea. “People like Saban or Charles Bronfman [a major donor to Birthright and many Israeli institutions, who has given money to liberal politicians and causes in Israel] are very active in the life of Israel. For them it’s important to be players. These are the kind of philanthropists Netanyahu can manage. Soros is an outcast. Someone out of the orbit. So he is an easier target.”
The two men have never met and travel in completely different circles, making Soros only a “small sacrifice for Netanyahu,” agrees Netanyahu biographer Pfeffer. He believes that Netanyahu doesn’t harbor personal animosity toward Soros, but rather that the prime minister’s statements are a purely political calculation. “There are all sorts of smears about Soros’s past,” he says, “so it’s not difficult for right-wing Jews to demonize Soros.” Soros is made-to-order for vilification, agrees Soros spokesperson Michael Vachon: “George is a complicated character. He’s not like Bill Gates, giving vaccines to babies all over the world. He is a financier and a currency trader. He courts controversy because he challenges oppressive powers to support the underdog.”
Deep ideological divides are in play. Netanyahu, the son of Benzion Netanyahu, a historian who served as secretary to revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, has always been a nationalist, says Pfeffer. “Soros is a hated figure for many nationalist movements around the world,” he says. “They see Soros as an enemy who is financing, giving inspiration to and helping those opposed to nationalism in many countries. So it’s almost natural that there would be enmity between Netanyahu and a person like Soros.” Certainly their ideologies clash. In an op-ed in The New York Times in July, Israeli journalist Mairav Zonszein wrote: “Soros’s humanitarianism and universalism represent an expression of post-Holocaust Jewish identity that is anathema to the hard-line nationalism of Mr. Netanyahu’s governing coalition.”
There are many links between Netanyahu and the ideological right in the United States. He has long cultivated figures such as the Reverend John Hagee, who heads Christians United for Israel, and conspiracy theorist and broadcaster Glenn Beck. Beck, who brought Lyndon LaRouche’s claim that Soros was a Nazi collaborator to a wider American audience by frequently repeating it on his Fox News program, has interviewed Netanyahu and visited him in Israel. Netanyahu also has close ties to Republican Jewish strategists, such as the late Arthur Finkelstein, whom he hired to engineer his victory against Shimon Peres in 1996, and Finkelstein protégé George Birnbaum. Both men were also political consultants for Netanyahu ally Orbán. Birnbaum declined to be interviewed for this story, but recently told Das Magazin reporter Hannes Grassegger that it was he and Finkelstein who suggested that Orbán use Soros as a foil. “It always helps rally the troops and rally a population when the enemy has a face,” Birnbaum told Grassegger. “Arthur always said that you did not fight against the Nazis but against Adolf Hitler. Not against al-Qaeda, but against Osama bin Laden.”
Is What He Funds Anti-Israel?
Like other liberal American Jewish philanthropists, Soros was disappointed when prospects for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began to fade in the 2000s. In many ways, Soros’s response was no different from theirs. He began speaking out and funding like-minded groups in the U.S. and Israel.
In 2003, his friend and fellow philanthropist Michael Steinhart invited Soros to speak at a Jewish Funders Network conference in New York in the hope that Soros might be persuaded to fund a greater array of American Jewish causes. Instead, Soros made headlines in the Jewish media with a taboo-breaking remark blaming Israeli government policy for anti-Semitism. He also met Yossi Beilin, and after the two of them talked, Soros threw his weight behind Beilin’s Geneva Initiative, a draft proposal to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on previous negotiations and international resolutions. “After the agreement was signed, Soros funded the offices called for in the initiative in Tel Aviv and in Ramallah, the capital of the Palestinian Authority,” says Beilin.
In the United States, Soros supported J Street, a lobbying group founded in 2007 that “organizes and mobilizes pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans who want Israel to be secure, democratic and the national home of the Jewish people,” and through its political arm supports American politicians who share these views. Established as an alternative to AIPAC, J Street is more willing to court controversy in the American Jewish community and challenge Israeli government policies. Soros did not provide J Street with start-up funding, but since 2008, he and his son Alex have donated $5 million to the organization, according to Vachon.
Since 2006, Soros’s OSF has given close to $3 million of its now $1 billion in annual spending to organizations in Israel. The goal, as elsewhere, is very specific: to strengthen the participation of a range of civil groups, in keeping with Soros’s guiding belief that open democratic societies are the best way to safeguard against totalitarianism and to protect the rights of minorities. Overall, the OSF says it has awarded 223 grants, totaling $24 million, to organizations whose work focuses on Israel and on Palestinians. Among OSF grantees reviled by the right are Adalah; B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories; the human rights volunteer group Yesh Din; Breaking the Silence, which highlights testimonies of former Israeli soldiers who served in the West Bank; and Gisha, an organization advocating for Palestinians’ freedom of movement.
Between 2006 and 2016, the OSF gave nearly $2.3 million to Adalah and more than $900,000 to B’Tselem. These grants were disbursed from the Open Society office in Amman, since the foundation does not have an office in Israel. Some additional grants, such as $225,000 to B’Tselem USA, were given through the foundation’s New York office. The NIF, which even more than Soros has been a lightning rod for right-wing criticism in Israel, received $897,000, plus an additional $149,000 in matching gifts, through 2016, according to the OSF.
“Civil society groups are not a threat, they are part of the public arena,” maintains Shuki Friedman, head of the Center for Religion and State at the Israel Democracy Institute and a lecturer at the Peres Academic Center law school. “Debate occurs through law, and it is legitimate to try to pursue rights through courts,” says Friedman. “This is part of the democratic process, and Israel’s democracy is strong enough for its courts to handle this. Narrowing or eliminating these groups from the public arena is a much more severe threat to Israeli democracy.” Adalah, for example, is doing important and legitimate work challenging the law over government policies toward minorities, Friedman says. “I don’t always agree with them, but they have the right to spread their perspective on these issues.”
Recipients of OSF support see this work as crucial. “I think human rights groups are essential,” says Yudith Oppenheimer, executive director of Ir Amim (City of Nations), which works to “make Jerusalem a more equitable and sustainable city for Israelis and Palestinians who share it and help secure a negotiated resolution on the city through sustained monitoring, reporting, public and legal advocacy, public education and outreach to re-orient the public discourse on Jerusalem.” Oppenheimer says the ongoing partnership with OSF provides moral support for Ir Amim’s work, but less than 10 percent of its budget. The work of civil society “is highly appreciated by the people and NGOs,” says Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab, who now lives in Amman, Jordan. “The OSF is courageous in its efforts and has made an impact especially on Palestinians who are citizens of Israel. It is also supporting Palestinian lawyers, human rights organizations and independent media.”
In rare cases, some of these organizations may go too far for a country such as Israel, which is always fighting against terrorism, says Friedman. “As [former Israeli Supreme Court Chief Justice] Aharon Barak once said, Israel is a democracy that has a right to defend itself,” he says. “But the line of restricting these activities should be criminal laws, whether one supports terrorism or talks against the right of Israel to exist. As long as an organization is not breaching any law, its views should be tolerated.”
Friedman says Netanyahu’s efforts to demonize civil society groups are unprecedented. “As far as I can recall, there might have been some prime minister who addressed this issue, but I don’t remember a governmental effort led by a prime minister to restrict this activity.” Yossi Beilin agrees: “Even the [Ariel] Sharon government didn’t treat [groups like] B’Tselem as traitors.” Says Ir Amin’s Oppenheimer: “We’re always being attacked, they are trying to paralyze us. This government and its allies have been effective in silencing public discourse.”
Friedman says the demonization is part of a larger trend. “Mainly extreme MKs [Members of Knesset],” he says, “are trying to eliminate the power of these organizations and institutions.” Says former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak: “This government is like an autoimmune disease, hacking our own foundations and institutions of democracy.”
A Broader Anti-Soros Campaign
Netanyahu has not whipped up anti-Soros sentiment in Israel in a vacuum. His rhetoric echoes the global trend in which leaders and their allies run well-orchestrated campaigns against civil society groups. In Israel, right-wing NGOs have joined in, and given Israel’s unique security situation, accused them of having ties with terrorists and being an existential threat to the nation. Some right-wing NGOs such as Im Tirtzu, which works to strengthen “the values of Zionism in Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” have conducted aggressive smear campaigns. In 2010, Im Tirtzu produced posters of then-NIF president Naomi Chazan that depicted her with a horn coming out of her forehead.
But it is NGO Monitor, a research organization with the motto “Making NGOs Accountable,” that has been the most influential when it comes to criticizing Soros and foreign funding of civil society groups. In 2013, NGO Monitor published a wide-ranging, frequently quoted 58-page report, “Bad Investment: The Philanthropy of George Soros and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, How Soros-funded Groups Increase Tensions in a Troubled Region.” Written by Alexander H. Joffe and edited by NGO Monitor founder Gerald Steinberg, it names 29 civil society groups that have received OSF grants that it considers anti-Israel. The list includes Israeli NGOs such as Ir Amim, Adalah and Breaking the Silence, which it labels “political opposition groups on the fringes of Israeli society.” It also includes Palestinian NGOs such as the Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, as well as U.S.-based groups such as J Street, blaming them for weakening U.S. support for Israel.
The report faults the OSF—which today has $25 billion in assets—for its decentralized structure and lack of transparency. According to its 2018 Budget Review, which is available online, the OSF is a network of foundations and related entities with 49 offices in 43 countries that collectively employ more than 1,600 staff, and is guided by hundreds of individuals serving as members of advisory and governing boards. Each board is a legal entity with “a fiduciary board that exercises its own legal responsibilities.”
“There is a generic problem with Soros,” says Steinberg, “and that is, he’s an outsider with a huge amount of money who has no hesitation about getting involved and trying to shape other people’s societies, countries and in our case, democracy.” Although he is critical of Soros, Steinberg says he finds “the use of anti-Semitic language and dog whistles absolutely unacceptable, and Netanyahu’s embrace of anti-Semites horrifying.”
But while Steinberg says NGO Monitor is non-partisan, others disagree. “NGO Monitor is spearheading the shrinking space for Israel and Palestinian human rights NGOs,” argues a September 2018 report from the Policy Working Group (PWG), a group of Israeli ex-diplomats, academics and others who promote a two-state solution. In the report, funded by the German foundation Wissenschaft und Politik, the diplomats call out NGO Monitor for a political agenda as evidenced by its exclusive focus “on human rights and civil society organizations that speak out against the Occupation.” NGO Monitor, it says, “does not target any of the numerous organizations that support the Occupation and the settlement enterprise and that display a spectacular lack of transparency and accountability.” In addition, the PWG details NGO Monitor’s lack of clear reporting about its own donors. “NGO Monitor receives most of its funding from foreign private donors and foundations,” the report says, “yet attacks human rights organizations for their foreign funding.”
Israel’s growing number of right-leaning Hebrew-language media also portray Soros as part of “a shadowy global conspiracy,” says Seventh Eye’s Shuki Taussig. In 2016, even before Netanyahu began to bring up Soros in public, Israel Hayom as well as Mida, Channel 20 and Channel 7 were already publishing critical stories about him. For example, in August 2016, Itay Reuveni, now NGO Monitor’s director of communications and outreach, published an article in Hebrew titled “George Soros, A Billionaire in the Service of Israel’s Enemies” in Mida—a website that aims to present the Israeli public with “information and opinions not common in the Israeli media.” Reuveni relied, in part, on documents from DCLeaks, a website that was later linked by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III to a Russian intelligence operation to disrupt the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Among Reuveni’s conclusions: Soros worked to “strengthen Israel’s enemies,” and civil society groups supported by the OSF worked in the interest of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
“There is a generic problem with Soros. He’s an outsider with a huge amount of money who has no hesitation about getting involved and trying to shape other people’s societies, countries and in our case, democracy.”
This is a common theme among Soros’s detractors. (Israeli law does not specifically prohibit NGOs from supporting BDS, but leaves the ones that do open to civil lawsuits.) The OSF, however, has never funded BDS, according to Soros spokesperson Vachon, although the foundation cannot track every project connected to every organization that it has supported over the decades. Soros’s hedge fund, Soros Fund Management—which managed some $30 billion in 2018—does not participate in any boycott of Israeli companies. It regularly buys and sells stock in companies based in Israel or that have connections to Israel. BDS, for its part, does not claim Soros as a supporter. On the contrary, the Palestinian BDS National Committee criticized Soros in May 2014 and called for a boycott of Soros Fund Management and OSF in connection with the fund’s investment in SodaStream, which at the time had a factory in the West Bank. The committee demanded the fund sell its stake in SodaStream, as well as in another Israeli company, Teva Pharmaceuticals. While the fund sold its SodaStream shares, totaling $23.4 million, a few months later, according to Bloomberg, it held on to Teva, which at the time was its largest single stock holding, according to a February 4, 2014 filing to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. It sold its Teva shares during the first quarter of 2015, then bought $118 million worth of shares in Noble Energy, a Texas-based company that is a major player in Israel’s gas-exploration industry.
Despite the misleading claim about BDS, Reuveni’s article was Mida’s sixth most-read article of the year. Since then, Israel Hayom, Mida and other media outlets have accused Soros of everything from bankrolling the Women’s March in the United States to undermining democratically elected governments in Eastern Europe. The comments sections of these articles are filled with anti-Semitic, often violent rhetoric, including calls for Netanyahu to “take care” of Soros and expressions of regret that Soros was “missed” in the Holocaust.