Jeremy Bird, the architect of the grass-roots and online organizing efforts that powered President Obama’s presidential campaigns from Chicago, is advising a similar operation in Tel Aviv. But this time it is focused on ousting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel.
His consulting work for the group V15 — an independent Israeli organization that does not support specific candidates but is campaigning to replace Israel’s current government — has added yet another political layer to the diplomatic mess surrounding Mr. Netanyahu’s decision to address a joint meeting of Congress next week on Iran.
The White House has argued that Mr. Netanyahu’s plan to deliver the speech on March 3, two weeks before the Israeli elections, is harming the United States-Israel relationship by injecting partisanship. Republicans contend it is Mr. Obama who is playing politics and cite the work of Mr. Bird as proof that the president is quietly rooting for the defeat of his Israeli counterpart.
American strategists have for decades signed on to work in Israeli political campaigns, with Democrats usually aligned with the Labor Party and Republicans often backing Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party. There is no evidence to suggest that Mr. Obama or any of his senior aides had anything to do with the move by his former top campaign official, who has never worked at the White House, to join the effort to defeat Mr. Netanyahu.
But Mr. Bird’s involvement in the elections is drawing attention when tensions between the two countries are so acute that what is usually considered standard practice for American political consultants in Israel is now seen as a provocation.
“It’s clearly a data point that people are looking to that indicates how the relationship has deteriorated,” said Matthew Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. He added that Mr. Bird reflects “the hypocrisy of this White House, which wants to stand on the notion that they’re not playing politics when in fact their fingerprints are all over this.”
The White House has repeatedly said its highest priority is keeping partisanship out of the relationship between the United States and Israel, citing that principle as Mr. Obama’s rationale for refusing to meet with Mr. Netanyahu during his visit.
Asked about the suggestion that Mr. Obama was tacitly backing an effort to oust Mr. Netanyahu, Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said, “The long tradition of bipartisan support for the U.S.-Israel relationship has served both our countries well for generations, and President Obama will continue to go to great lengths to shield our alliance from the smallness of party politics.”
Mr. Bird, who was Mr. Obama’s national field director in 2012 and is a founding partner of the political consulting firm 270 Strategies, declined to be interviewed. But he said through a spokeswoman that V15 and its partners had asked him and his firm “to share best practices in organizing so they can maximize their impact both online and on the ground.”
“We’re witnessing something special happening in Israel right now: There’s a groundswell of organic energy as more than 10,000 supporters are coming together to have a voice in their country,” Mr. Bird said through the spokeswoman. V15’s “efforts are already paying off as they have reached out to more than 200,000 targeted voters, both in person and on the phone, about the need for change in Israel.”
Administration allies scoff at the accusation that Mr. Bird’s involvement is inappropriate, saying it is particularly galling given Mr. Netanyahu’s move to work with the House speaker, John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican, to arrange a speech without telling the White House. Many Democrats see the speech as a move that would undercut Mr. Obama’s efforts to forge a nuclear deal with Iran.
“It is eye-rolling for Netanyahu to complain about former Obama aides working against him when he cooked up a speech to Congress with Boehner and didn’t tell the White House,” said Tommy Vietor, a former National Security Council aide to Mr. Obama. “He has removed his ability to complain about playing politics by openly meddling in U.S. politics. The notion that Jeremy and the 270 team were sent there with the blessing of President Obama is just silly.”
Mr. Bird’s work in Israel started in November 2013, when he began consulting with OneVoice, an organization pressing to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He signed on with V15 in December 2014, after Mr. Netanyahu called the March 2015 elections. Last month, the Israel arm of OneVoice became a partner with V15 to mobilize voters.
The effort has angered Mr. Netanyahu and his allies in Israel, who unsuccessfully sought a court injunction against V15, arguing it was violating Israeli election law by accepting foreign donations. Likud withdrew the request last week, citing difficulty in proving the charge.
Republicans in Congress have criticized Mr. Bird’s involvement and the work of OneVoice, which has received grants from the State Department. In a letter to the department last month that prominently mentioned Mr. Bird and his ties to Mr. Obama, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Representative Lee Zeldin of New York, both Republicans, said they were concerned that American taxpayer money was being used to influence the Israeli elections and unseat Mr. Netanyahu.
“It is deeply troubling that President Obama’s national field director is helping run the campaign to defeat the democratically elected leader of one of our closest friends and allies, the nation of Israel,” Mr. Cruz said in an interview on Friday.
In a response to the lawmakers, Julia Frifield, the State Department’s assistant secretary for legislative affairs, said in a statement that OneVoice’s Israel branch received a $233,500 grant in September 2013 to support peace negotiations by Mr. Netanyahu’s government. The grant was paid in installments, with the final one paid in August 2014, before elections were called.
“There is absolutely no basis to claims that the Department of State has funded efforts to influence the current Israeli election campaign,” Ms. Frifield wrote.
Mr. Bird is the latest in a long line of Americans who have worked on foreign political campaigns, particularly in Israel. In December, Mr. Netanyahu hired John McLaughlin, a Republican pollster; Likud has brought on Vincent Harris, a campaign aide to Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky. Former aides to Mr. Obama have also worked for the prime minister, including Bill Knapp and Josh Isay.
Former campaign strategists to Bill Clinton, including his pollster Stanley B. Greenberg and strategist James Carville, went to Israel in 1999 to help Ehud Barak defeat Mr. Netanyahu.
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