A desperate Benjamin Netanyahu was this week thwarted in an attempt to push through the Knesset a controversial bill allowing party workers to bring cameras into polling stations.
With polls showing the opposition Blue and White party narrowly edging ahead of the prime minister’s Likud party ahead of next week’s elections, Netanyahu had attempted to railroad legislation through Israel’s parliament which opponents deemed “election-stealing” and an attempt to intimidate Arab-Israeli voters.
The so-called Securities Camera Law would have allowed representatives of political parties to bring cameras into polling stations. Netanyahu and Likud claim the proposed measure is needed to combat voter fraud.
“Only someone who wants to steal the election would oppose the placement of cameras,” the prime minister claimed last week. He went on to ask rhetorically: “Every grocery store has cameras, so voting stations can’t?”
But the bill was opposed by the attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit; the Central Elections Committee; and Eyal Yinon, the Knesset’s legal adviser.
On Sunday, the cabinet overruled Mandelblit’s objection that the law would undermine “the exercise of the fundamental right to vote and also the implementation of the legal obligation to conduct free, secret and equal elections”.
However, a subsequent effort to shorten the normal 45-day legislative process in the Knesset’s Regulatory Committee on Monday failed when MKs were deadlocked 12-12. The crucial votes preventing the bill from gaining the required majority were provided by Netanyahu’s former coalition partner turned arch-enemy, Avigdor Liberman. His Yisrael Beitenu party voted against the proposal, with the one-time defence minister claiming “what Netanyahu is trying to pass is not a voter observer bill; it is an election-stealing bill”.
A further, fruitless attempt to push the bill through a Knesset plenary session on Wednesday was defeated after failing to reach the required 61 votes.
The defeat of the planned legislation received a warm welcome from opposition leaders. Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz said “today, sanity won.” But, he warned, “In the coming days Netanyahu will continue with his spin — he will try to disrupt election day, to sow doubt in the election results, and he is likely to bring back this bill.”
Amir Peretz, leader of Labor-Gesher, said the development was “a wrench in [the] works of Benjamin Netanyahu’s racism and incitement.”
Ayman Odeh, joint head of the Joint List, said that Netanyahu was “embarking on a final battle against the Arab community, the legal system and the entire democratic space. Bibi’s show of playing the victim is coming to an end.”
Netanyahu also came under attack from Benny Begin, a former cabinet minister who served in the Knesset for 18 years and whose father, Menachem, was the founder of the modern Likud party and led it to power in 1977. Begin said he would not vote for Likud next week and attacked the government for ignoring Mandelblit’s advice. “Traditionally, the attorney general is the one who outlines the constitutional tradition,” Begin said. “The government is subject to his constitutional advice. To disregard the attorney general’s advice is a grave phenomenon.”
Netanyahu’s failed effort followed the revelation earlier this year that during April’s general election, Likud provided 1,200 of its poll workers based in Arab areas with hidden body cameras. The party said that the cameras were designed to prevent rampant fraud among Arab Israeli voters and handed over footage after the elections to the Central Elections Committee in support of its claims.
The election watchdog, though, later dismissed almost all of Likud’s allegations and the Supreme Court justice overseeing the elections last month banned parties from filming at polling stations. Instead Hanan Melcer approved proposals for the Central Elections Committee to dispatch independent observers with cameras to randomly tour polling stations on election day.
Until the ruling, Likud had planned to vastly expand its polling day operations, spending double the amount on filming that it has shelled out in April. The Security Cameras Laws was an attempt to circumvent Melcer’s ruling.
In the run-up to last weekend’s cabinet meeting, Likud upped the ante by alleging that fraud had allowed the Islamist Ra’am-Balad alliance (which is running as party of the Joint List in next week’s elections) to cross the threshold in April. The party also suggested that fraud was to blame for the New Right party – a potential coalition partner – from failing to win Knesset seats.
“It has been established that if [voter] fraud had been prevented, Balad would not have passed the threshold percentage, and the right-wing bloc under the leadership of Prime Minister Netanyahu would have had 61 seats. This would have kept Israel from unnecessary elections,” Likud claimed last week.
Experts have, however, questioned the party’s assertions. Moreover, it appears that polling stations in Arab towns constituted just one-third of the total number of disqualified votes. Instead, potential voting irregularities (identified in places where turnout was markedly different from other adjacent polling stations) were apparent in ultra-Orthodox settlements such as Modiin Illit and Beitar Illit and cities such as Petah Tikva, Afula and Netanya.
In reality, Likud’s claims to be concerned about voter fraud have already been comprehensively undermined by statements made by the company which it hired to carry out the filming in April: “Thanks to the fact that our observers were placed in every polling station, voter turnout dropped below 50% – the lowest seen in recent years!”
With the Arab parties no longer split – the Joint List, which was the third largest grouping in the Knesset in 2015, but splintered into two rival camps for April’s elections – and running once again under one umbrella, Arab-Israeli turnout is expected to rise. In 2015, it was 15 points higher than the 49 percent it registered in April. Arab parties have never sat in government, but they have provided the votes to secure the survival of minority governments, such as Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor administration, in the early 1990s.
With the polls indicating that he will, once again, fail to win a majority – potentially plunging Israel into the same stalemate which produced two general elections in less than six months – Netanyahu is seemingly deploying any tactic he can to squeeze out every last vote.
But the Security Cameras Law isn’t just about polling day, but the day after, speculates David Horovitz of the Times of Israel: “As Netanyahu has himself made clear, however, he has a second dark motive for focusing on his camera bid and the ostensible widespread election fraud it is purportedly designed to counter. He wants to be able to claim a pretext, if he again fails to win a majority on September 17, for arguing that the elections were stolen from him — by some of the same forces of evil that he claims are seeking to oust him for alleged corruption, notably including Israel’s opposition and its legal guardians.”
For now, however, Netanyahu’s defeat this week is a victory for Israel’s democracy and the rule of law.