Right-wing media are baselessly connecting the Obama administration and the State Department to a local Israeli campaign against current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In fact, American political consultants from both parties have been independently working in Israeli campaigns for decades -- including former Obama aides who have worked for Netanyahu.
Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen wrote on February 2 that a former Obama campaign staffer went to Israel “to oust Netanyahu,” suggesting the former staffer would not do this work “if he thought Obama opposed it” and implying the administration was “actively working to defeat Netanyahu” :
Obama's 2012 national field director, Jeremy Bird, was headed to Tel Aviv to manage a grass-roots campaign to oust Netanyahu. Bird would not be working to defeat Netanyahu if he thought Obama opposed it. Can you imagine Karl Rove going to London while George W. Bush was in office to help conservatives oust Prime Minister Tony Blair? It further emerged that the group behind Bird's anti-Netanyahu effort has received State Department funding and lists the State Department as a “partner” on its Web site.
But before this false idea hit the Post, it bubbled up from the right-wing media echo chamber.
Two policy groups in Israel, OneVoice and Victory 15, are currently working together to promote platforms that reportedly “are not friendly” to Netanyahu ahead of the upcoming election.
The groups have also partnered with American consulting group 270 Strategies, which is headed by Jeremy Bird, a former Obama campaign staffer. OneVoice began working with 270 Strategies in 2013, long before the Israeli elections were announced.
There is a long history of U.S. political consultants from both parties working for Israeli political campaigns. As the New York Times reported, former Obama campaign strategist Bill Knapp worked as an adviser to Netanyahu in 2009. Josh Isay, whose firm worked on the Obama campaign, has also worked for Netanyahu. Bill Clinton campaign strategists James Carville and Stanley Greenberg worked for an Israeli Labor Party candidate in 1999; up until recently Republican strategist Arthur Finkelstein worked for Netanyahu.
Nevertheless, conservatives have jumped on 270 Strategies' current work to falsely accuse the Obama administration -- and President Obama personally -- of attempting to influence Israeli politics.
In particular, the right-wing criticism revolves around the administration's response to Rep. John Boehner's (R-OH) recent announcement that Netanyahu was invited to speak before the U.S. Congress without President Obama's knowledge shortly before Israel's election, an unusual intervention in foreign policy and almost-unheard of action between heads of state. Conservatives claim that 270 Strategies' work with OneVoice proves Obama is either retaliating against Netanyahu or engaging in a similar effort to meddle in foreign politics; but again, 270's work on the ground in Israel began long before this most recent disagreement, and it is typical for American political consultants to engage in Israeli politics.
Fringe blogs Gateway Pundit and PJ Media led the charge, publishing the “report” on January 26 claiming “The Obama administration is backing the campaign to defeat Netanyahu.” The Drudge Report hyped an inside look at the “HQ of ex-Obama staffers' anti-Bibi campaign,” right below a story labeled “White House ratchets up criticism of Netanyahu.” Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) even followed up with a blog on Breitbart.com to ask, “Has President Obama launched a political campaign against Prime Minister Netanyahu?”
Fox News also picked up the claim, with host Megyn Kelly suggesting that the administration sent an Obama “field general” to help Israel “elect Netanyahu's opponent” :
[The Obama administration says] that they're fine, they are not going to interfere with the Israeli election, they don't want anything to do with that and yet, we have reports yesterday that this guy Jeremy Bird, who was the field general for Obama's re-election campaign is helping in Israel elect Netanyahu's opponent and to replace the current government there. Pure coincidence?
When Kelly's guest Joe Trippi then explained that former campaign staffers frequently work on international campaigns -- on either side of various issues -- National Review's Rich Lowry attempted to argue that “you cannot find anyone significant around President Obama who would ever go to work for Bibi Netanyahu, which, again, goes to the animosity they have to this man personally and for the point of view he represents.”
Many of the media outlets took the smear further, by also claiming that tax-payer dollars were funding the campaign. OneVoice briefly received a one-time grant for about $200,000 from the State Department, which ended in November 2014. As State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki noted in a briefing, the grant “ended before there was a declaration of an Israeli election.”
Nevertheless, media outlets such as the Daily Caller insisted that OneVoice was currently “backed by the Department of State” and labeled it “Kerry's Diplomatic Protection Racket.” Kelly even suggested that OneVoice “should be forced to return the $200,000 to the taxpayers.”
Now, this right-wing distortion of the facts has made it all the way to the Post.