Mission unaccomplished.

Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

A Soros Plan, a Marginalized Israel

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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After the election of Barack Obama in 2009, the George Soros organization saw an opportunity to weaken the pro-Israel lobby's influence in Washington. So his Open Society Foundations began an ambitious project in 2009 to persuade Europe and the U.S. to "hold Israel accountable" for violations of international law.

This plan was outlined in two internal papers from the Open Society Foundations that were published online this month. They disclose how a web of grants to Palestinian and Israeli human rights groups were part of a larger strategy to influence Congress, reporters and government officials.

It started with so much hope after Obama won the 2008 election. "The right-wing so called 'pro-Israel' lobby has lost some credibility by being closely associated with Bush Administration Middle East policies," a 2013 summary of the foundation's "Palestine/Israel International Advocacy Portfolio" said. "As the Obama Administration distances itself from these somehow discredited policies, space for reasonable, unbiased discussions in the policy deliberations, including criticism of Israeli policies, is opening."

There was, however, a catch. Soros's organization, then known as the Open Society Institute, did not want to be open about its advocacy. A 2009 paper on the project says the organization must "maintain a low public profile regarding OSI sponsorship of this initiative."

The 2013 document describes the "toxic atmosphere" in 2000 and 2001 when the foundation began its work in the Middle East, and how this environment could lead to "politically motivated investigations" from either the Bush administration or what it calls "pro-Israel entities." Soros himself was worried about George W. Bush. In 2006, he said the president's communications strategy reminded him of Nazi and Communist propaganda. Hence his foundations took a "cautious approach."

"For a variety of reasons we wanted to construct a diversified portfolio of grants dealing with Israel and Palestine, funding both Israeli Jewish and (Palestinian Citizens of Israel) groups as well as building a portfolio of Palestinian grants and in all cases to maintain a low profile and relative distance –particularly on the advocacy front," the 2013 paper says.

Some of this was known before. I reported in 2010 that the liberal Jewish group J Street had received Soros money but had denied receiving it to the press and on its website. In 2013, the pro-Israel group NGO Monitor issued a report on Soros funding for Israeli and Palestinian activists covered in the documents released this week.

Still, let's take a minute here to savor the irony. An outfit that promotes the "open society" is shielding its efforts to influence public policy. It's true that plenty of foundations take a similar sub rosa approach to funding advocacy work in Washington. But those foundations are not named for Karl Popper's famous defense of liberal democracies. It's enough to make you wish there was a new Open Society Foundations to expose the old one.

The group that leaked these documents is mysterious. It's called DCLeaks.com, and it says it's a project of "hacktivists" committed to many of the same principles espoused by Popper and Soros.

Rebecca Beyer, a communications officer for Open Society, confirmed to me Monday that documents were removed from an online forum used by the staff of the foundation and its partners. She said the breach was reported to the FBI. "The materials reflect big-picture strategies over several years from the Open Society Foundations network, which supports human rights, democratic practice, economic advancement, and the rule of law in more than 100 countries around the world."

When it comes to Israel, that translates into funding organizations like Breaking the Silence, a group of Israeli ex-soldiers who tour Europe and the U.S. to discuss the Israel Defense Force's war crimes. The document says that between 2012 and 2014, the Open Society Foundations gave this group $100,000 -- a significant donation for a group that in 2012 had a budget of only $841,410.

It should be said that Israel's army, like all armies, has done awful things. Israel's occupation in the West Bank and blockade of Gaza is a cause of misery for Palestinians. But there is no equivalent organization to expose the human rights abuses of Hamas or the Palestinian Security Forces. And while there is fleeting mention in the 2013 Open Society paper of holding the Palestinian Authority accountable for such violations, there is no mention of any such organization to monitor Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007. To get a flavor of its human rights record, consider that Gazans deemed "collaborators" with Israel in 2012 were dragged through the streets by speeding motorcycles.  

Funding groups like Breaking the Silence is not an accident. As the 2013 leaked report says: "Our theory of change was based on strengthening the advocacy efforts of civil society organizations and platforms in order to maintain sustained and targeted international advocacy that would oblige the international community (mostly Europe and America) to act and to hold Israel accountable to its obligations under the international law."

In Obama's first term, this meant pushing for Israelis to be "held accountable" for the 2008-9 Gaza War, when Israel barraged Hamas positions interspersed in the civilian population. The foundation's Washington office arranged meetings in 2010 with Richard Goldstone, the author of a report that said Israel may have sought out civilian casualties. Goldstone recanted in 2011, saying the report was used to demonize Israel.

In this respect, Open Society is treating Israel the way it treats autocratic countries like Russia or Iran, as an adversarial abuser of human rights. In the case of Iran though, the group has also supported Obama's outreach to the country. "Human rights defense work remains an important priority for the Iran Program," a 2014 program summary says. "But should not be pursued to the exclusion of all other work, including work on supporting better policy outcomes such as support for a nuclear deal with Iran." In 2009, the Open Society Policy Center in Washington worked with other groups to open relations with Iran, and in 2015 the nuclear deal was signed.

There has been little progress on Open Society's goal of pressuring Israel. Eight years into the Obama administration, the organization has certainly not isolated Israel as a rogue state, and it's unclear what the threat of doing so has accomplished. While Obama has been more public than any of his predecessors in condemning Israeli settlements, he has also strengthened the U.S.-Israeli military bond. The U.S. today is close to signing a new 10-year extension of the defense subsidy to Israel. Obama's advisers promise it will be the most generous aid package in U.S. history. Meanwhile, the peace process has been dormant for more than a year.

This is not to say Israel doesn't have its problems. It faces boycotts on college campuses and frosty relations in Europe, and some businesses are wary of investing in the West Bank. But in a Middle East upended by civil war and revolution, the region's one open society has not become a pariah or ended its occupation of the West Bank. Despite the best efforts of George Soros and his foundations.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net