Analysis |

Netanyauh's Camera Bill Is a Gun at Israeli Democracy’s Head

The Knesset is being asked not merely to abandon restraint, but to exceed its authority

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during a state memorial ceremony at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, West Bank, on September 4, 2019. 
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during a state memorial ceremony at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, West Bank, on September 4, 2019. Credit: \ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

The governmental revolution rightists have been fomenting in recent years has entered a new stage with a bill to allow cameras at polling stations. At this stage, they’re going for the jackpot. They’re willing to destroy even the most fundamental elements of democracy – holding elections and accepting the voter’s will.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that Benjamin Netanyahu sees himself as destined by God or history to lead Israel. In his view, no other prime minister is possible. And to ensure his continued rule, all means are kosher.

To win the election (which means being able to form a right-wing government), or else cast doubt on the results if he doesn’t, he must first prepare public opinion. Nothing could be easier. Spread lies about how the election is going to be stolen (from Netanyahu’s Likud party, of course) as if they were facts, without offering a shred of proof, evidently because there isn’t any. And don’t say so explicitly, but let it be understood that the danger is the Arabs, who everyone knows are con men.

Voters cast their ballots in the Israeli Arab-majority city of Taibeh. in central Israel, April 2019.Credit: Rami Shllush

That Arabs were in the crosshairs was already known. Last election, Likud focused on Arab polling stations. In the previous election, we learned that Netanyahu doesn’t regard Arabs as legitimate voters.

It doesn’t matter that of 140 polling stations in Arab towns that Likud deemed as suspect, police suspected criminal activity at only one (while suspecting criminal activity by Likud and Shas at other polling stations). This fact is replaced aside by “alternative facts” that serve Netanyahu’s purposes.

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The only way to prevent the election from being stolen, he claims, is to let party representatives bring cameras into polling stations, which requires legislation. If such legislation isn’t passed, there will be no reason to accept the election results.

In other words, a gun has been aimed at Israeli democracy’s head: If it doesn’t bow to this caprice, we’ll kill it. For democracy can suffer no more certain death than denial of the election results.

This is a continuation of the decision to dissolve the Knesset, which had only just been elected in fair elections, to prevent anyone but Netanyahu from forming a government. It’s one long sneer at the voters and the electoral process. Moreover, it’s hard to get voters to the polls a second time. This shows that Netanyahu’s feigned concern for the integrity of the election, which he says the bill is meant to protect, is risible. Netanyahu and integrity is like hot snow – an oxymoron.

Netanyahu and his wife Sarah at the polling station on Election Day last April, 2019.Credit: Chaim Tzach / GPO

Clearly, there’s no plan to steal the election, other than Likud’s effort to pass this bill, which could illegitimately tilt the results. Turning party representatives – who aren’t skilled in collecting evidence and have clear partisan biases – into detectives scouring for electoral fraud is ridiculous and irresponsible. It’s no accident that the police say this proposal would make it harder for them to investigate genuine election fraud.

Moreover, citizens doing their civic duty by voting will become suspects through no fault of their own, harming their dignity. The cameras will also violate their privacy. The Arab community, which is especially sensitive to privacy, will be deterred from voting (which is the bill’s true purpose). And the photographs will probably leak, further violating voters’ privacy.

Additionally, the parties will be biased enforcers; they’ll primarily focus on their true target – the Arabs. Instead of enhancing oversight through simple methods like scanning and analyzing polling station records, Likud is using an extreme, disruptive tactic that gives an advantage to larger, wealthier parties, thereby undermining equality.

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Police also fear the cameras will inflame tempers, which could cause disturbances at polling stations. And the hasty legislation leaves neither police nor those wielding the cameras time to prepare before next week’s election. The inevitable result will be irregularities in the conduct of the elections and deterred voters. The next step in the legislative process is Knesset approval.

Cabinet ministers have already proven themselves to be Netanyahu’s obedient slaves. Nevertheless, there are two genuine obstacles: Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and Central Elections Committee Chairman Hanan Melcer. Melcer thinks that at this late date, such legislation would disrupt the election, deter voters and generally cause chaos. He has also already taken unprecedented steps to ensure the election’s integrity. Any reasonable government would accept his professional opinion. Ignoring it to pass this law would unreasonably risk undermining the democratic process – that is, the election – and turning Israel into a third-world country.

Nor would any reasonable government refuse to accept Mendelblit’s view that the bill is unconstitutional. In a parliamentary system, where the government has an automatic parliamentary majority, the attorney general’s ability to declare a proposal unconstitutional is a necessary check. For any government to ignore his opinion would undermine the rule of law. But that’s especially true of a transitional government seeking to rush through legislation just days before an election.

The Central Election Committee staff at work on Election Day last April 9th, 2019. Credit: Emil Salman

Yet Netanyahu has no qualms about reprimanding the attorney general and the Central Elections Committee chairman as if they were errant schoolboys. He accuses them of not caring about the election’s integrity and paints them as part of the political opposition. Let’s hope Mendelblit and Melcer treat his rebuke as the compliment that it is. No reasonable government would enact such a change without doing thorough staff work and consulting the professionals. But in this government, anything goes.

Even if the bill doesn’t pass the Knesset, Netanyahu will reap considerable political capital. But the Knesset, like the cabinet, will most likely to go ahead and scrap the rules of the game as played until now. What gives democracy its special flavor is that people in power generally show restraint in using their power.

This time, however, the Knesset is being asked not merely to abandon restraint, but to actually exceed its authority. For years, the custom has been that once new elections are called, the Knesset stops legislating new bills. It merely finishes legislation that’s already almost done and that also enjoys broad consensus, or in rare cases, that unexpected new circumstances have made urgent.

This custom is no accident, and violating it is anti-constitutional. Without it, a government whose legitimacy has evaporated could still do anything it pleases, including passing half-baked legislation that could sway voters. A system even minimally committed to equality can’t give any transitional government such power – and especially not one that lacks the Knesset’s confidence, as this one does.

The High Court of Justice, which will surely be asked to intervene, should protect this vital custom by blocking the bill even before it passes. But Netanyahu and Likud can’t lose, because if the court does block the bill – whether before or after it passes – they’ll simply assail it. Thus either way, democracy will suffer incalculable harm.

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