Ultra-Orthodox and Arab Parties Struck Illegal Deal at Polling Stations, Haaretz Investigation Finds

United Torah Judaism and United Arab List-Balad swapped representatives at key polling stations, in violation of election laws ■ Analysis of thousands of protocols from polling stations and interviews with dozens of representatives reveal the deal

חילופי נציגים בקלפיות
Protocols showing swapped party representatives in Israel's April 9 general election. Credit: Emil Salman

The voting rate at booth no. 64 in Bnei Brak in the April 9 election was 97 percent, a stunning figure for the ultra-Orthodox community. There's another peculiarity. The name of the representative supervising the polling station on behalf of the United Arab List-Balad was Avraham Mordechai Safarnovitz, a member of the Jewish Gur Hassidic sect. Meanwhile, in the Arab town of Tamra, the representative on behalf of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish party United Torah Judaism was Mohammed Diab.

This is not a mere coincidence or a case of few polling stations. A Haaretz investigative report has found that in at least 130 polling stations, ultra-Orthodox individuals represented the Arab parties in ultra-Orthodox areas, and vice versa. This data reveals that United Torah Judaism and the Arab parties had struck a deal in which they informally agreed to swap representatives without advising the Central Election Committee.

These swaps help the parties gain more power at polling stations that matter to them, in a manner that is both illegal and could open the door to election fraud and vote count irregularities.

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In some of the polling stations at which Haaretz found that there were two representatives from the same party, polling station officials had reported irregularities and in some, the reported voting rate was unusually high. Very few instances like these were probed by the Central Elections Committee.

Sources in both parties admitted to Haaretz that the deal had been made – and some added that they did this in the last four elections.

Israel's election law states that a polling station committee must include a "professional, apolitical" secretary appointed by the Central Elections Committee, which chooses three representatives of parties in the outgoing Knesset to supervise the counting procedure. The committee is supposed to aspire to balance, and certainly isn’t supposed to have two people from a single party.

At more than half the voting booths where Arabs and ultra-Orthodox switched places, there was double representation of a party (in other cases, a member of UTJ might replace the Arab representative, or vice versa, but the committee's other members are representatives of third parties).

Another way to increase influence at the polling stations is through the appointment of observers, which is the prerogative of any party not represented in a booth committee. The result is that there were booths with an ultra-Orthodox representative for UTJ and an ultra-Orthodox observer representing the Arab parties. The same gambit, vice versa, was applied in some Arab towns: An Arab representative for UAL-Balad and an Arab observer for UTJ.

In the city of Elad, for example, 23 of the city's 32 had representatives of the Arab parties – all with names like Katzberg, Fligman, and Guttman. At 18 of these booths, the ultra-Orthodox representative of the Arab parties created double representation for UTJ. "A friend arranged for me to be at the booth as an Arab party representative," one committee member told Haaretz.

Balad faction leaders, including Yazbak, in Jerusalem, July 6, 2019. Credit: Emil Salman

Another said: "Everybody knows the system. The Arabs replace the ultra-Orthodox. You can't be a polling station representative in an Arab town, it's dangerous. I gave over my ID number and was named a representative on behalf of the Arab party."

Diab explains that he is an activist for the Arab party Balad and was supposed to be at some settlement or other while an ultra-Orthodox representative was named to Tamra, an Arab town in northern Israel – so they switched. He wouldn't have wanted to go to a West Bank settlement, he explains.

Swapping lists

These swaps between the Arab parties and the ultra-Orthodox don't take place as part of the proper, official swapping mechanism that does exist. A few weeks before the election, the Central Election Committee appoints three parties for each polling stations according to blocs it determines in advance: Right, left, center, Arabs and ultra-Orthodox. This is meant to ensure that polling station committees will be balanced and include representatives from a variety of parties, thus preventing election fraud.

The parties can request to change their representations so that they are placed in cities where they didn't get represented, as long as this doesn't upset the balance. After the Central Election Committee approves all the changes, the parties place their representatives at the different polling stations throughout the country.

However, it appears that the swaps made between UAL-Balad and UTJ were not reported to the Central Election Committee. Haaretz's report shows that the parties have swapped among themselves lists of representatives and created appointment documents, so that on paper it still appeared as if no swaps took place.

"We take the ID numbers of our people and pass them on to Hadash, Ta'al and Raam and they manufacture the appointment letters, and it works that way vice versa," a UTJ official told Haaretz. "We need people in our polling stations to report who is coming to vote and who isn't. But it's not like I would send a Haredi man to the heart of Umm al-Fahm," he said.

An official in UAL-Balad said that he is disheartened to learn about the swaps and that the party understands that this a mistake that has created a situation in which many of the polling stations of the Haredi sector are operating without any supervision from the opposition and with double representation of UTJ members.

United Torah Judaism conference in Jerusalem, April 8, 2019. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Meanwhile, sources at the Central Election Committee who spoke to Haaretz didn't rule out that such swaps happen, but claim that this is a marginal phenomenon. "We have 100,000 people working on Election Day… in many ways we rely on the party representatives at the polling stations. The responsibility and the interest to unveil irregularities is also theirs."

But while the Central Election Committee relies on party representatives at the polling stations to sound alarm in unsual cases – such as an ultra-Orthodox man arriving at the booth as a representative of an Arab party – this doesn't really happen. The Central Election Committee had all the power and data to uncover this deal on its own, because it has to approve the nominations of polling booth chiefs. Police investigations into irregularities in several polling stations did not look into party representatives swapping.

'Serious difficulties'

Responding to Haaretz's report, the Central Election Committee stated: "At the basis of Israel's election system is the decision that polling station committee members will be members of Knesset factions whose jobs is to supervise the election process at the polling booth and make sure that the process is legal. Every party recruits its own representatives and is allowed to nominate anyone as a representative. The Central Election Committee has no authority or ability to intervene in that nomination process.

We will note that in the past, there were suggestions that the Central Election Committee alone would be in charge of the nomination of the polling station committee members, but bills on the matter were rejected. This practice mentioned [in the report] was not approved by us, and as long as it takes place, it creates serious difficulties. We intend to speak to party representatives and emphasize to them the election laws and the importance of refraining from nominating individuals who are not party members."

UAL-Balad stated in response: "The parties of the United Arab List-Balad are operating according to the procedures of the Central Election Committee by placing observers in polling stations, and the observers are employed according to their location."

UTJ responded: "United Torah Judaism has acted and will continue to act according to the law and proper procedures."

Jack Khoury contributed to this report.

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