Analysis

Israel Election: Netanyahu Deploys Trump’s 'Election Fraud' Canard, to Devastating Effect

The prime minister’s stink bomb has upended the election campaign, but it could ultimately demolish Israeli democracy itself

A worker in Bnei Brak hangs an election campaign billboard showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and U.S. President Donald Trump, Sept 8, 2019.
Oded Bililty/AP

Let no one say that Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu are ignoring long-held bilateral traditions. Haaretz reported this week that 50 years ago the Nixon administration pushed Israel to send its new U.S.-made Phantom F-4 fighter jets into combat with Egypt in order to test their American-built strength against Soviet weaponry. Half a century later, Netanyahu is showing the same courtesy to Trump. (For the latest election polls – click here)

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The “election fraud” canard may have been conceived, developed and put through experimental trials at the White House, but it is Netanyahu who has now deployed the stink bomb under actual combat conditions. The results so far should please Trump immensely: His election fraud con job, modified by Netanyahu to suit local conditions, has overwhelmed the election campaign, seized control of its agenda and laid waste to the carefully laid plans of Netanyahu’s rivals.

>> Netanyahu is scaring out the vote using his most reliable weapon | Analysis

American politicos should by now be following developments closely, even if they have no special interest in Israel or its politics, because Trump’s patently absurd concoction is actually a work of genius, for two main reasons:

1. It requires no factual basis. Israeli election procedures are far from perfect, but there is no known record of widespread cheating. The fraud that Netanyahu claims occurred wholesale in the previous April 9 ballot was investigated and found to be minimal — and usually in favor of Likud. The April 9 election was indeed overshadowed by Likud claims of fraud, but these were simply a cover for Likud’s blunt Election Day stunt of sending hundreds of cameras into only the Arab community to “supervise” the polls. The cameras’ true focus, supressing the Arab vote, was arguably one of the reasons Arab voter participation went down from 65 percent in 2015 to less than 50 percent on April 9.

But what was only a sham Election Day sideshow five months ago has now evolved into Netanyahu’s strategic weapon of choice — and for good reason. His government’s efforts to legislate a law, mere days before Israelis head to the polls, that would introduce cameras into polling places has sparked bedlam and mayhem. Netanyahu’s rivals, as well as most of the media and the legal community, were taken aback by the sheer outrageousness of Netanyahu’s gambit, leaving them shell-shocked and mostly speechless.

And all it took was for Netanyahu to say the word, malicious and divorced from reality as it is, for his unquestioning troops to fall in line and follow suit. Likud ministers and activists, who hadn’t mentioned election fraud even once during Netanyahu’s 10-year term in office, were suddenly portraying it as an existential danger. Supporters of Likud, hitherto the main beneficiaries of Israeli elections, were brainwashed, literally overnight, to embrace Netanyahu’s paranoid and patently absurd claim that “the left” is out to “steal the elections.”

Netanyahu’s rivals promptly — and usually lamely, with the notable exception of Ehud Barak — tried to neuter Likud’s cock and bull. The media then fell into line and Netanyahu’s well-laid trap, making way for headlines on the election fraud brouhaha and relegating discussion of Netanyahu’s alleged corruption, for which he could soon be indicted, to the back pages.

In the process, Netanyahu has fired up his base, put his rivals on the defensive, asserted his domination over the election campaign and possibly found the ace in the hole that could tilt the election his way.

"Dear Donald," Netanyahu might write to his friend and role model in Washington. "Your 'election fraud' scam has exceeded expectations. It burned the house down, Only a mind as brilliant as yours could have come up with it. Based on my experience, I recommend that you deploy it as well at an opportune time, just before the November 2020 elections. Satisfaction guaranteed!"

2. The second reason that Trump’s invention is so ingeniously diabolical is its potential not only to detonate here and now but also to continue exploding for years to come. In the short term, the move has allowed Netanyahu to override and humiliate his attorney general, who strenuously opposed the proposed camera law and who, not coincidentally, will soon decide Netanyahu’s fate. It provides the prime minister with an opportunity to deride his nemesis, President Reuven Rivlin, who has also come out in public against hasty, election-eve legislation.

And if and when the Knesset soils itself by legislating the camera law, the High Court of Justice may very well annul it, allowing Netanyahu to escalate his wars against the shadowy leftist cabal that is purportedly out to get him. That might be the extent of it if Netanyahu wins the election — in which case Likud’s claims of widespread fraud will vanish the moment the polls close. It could also dissipate in the unlikely event that Netanyahu loses the election by a solid and incontrovertible majority.

But if, as polls indicate, Netanyahu loses by a slim margin, if he only comes close to his coveted 61 seats in the Knesset but gets no victorious cigar, he and his election fraud scheme could go ballistic.

If Netanyahu decides to challenge the election results, and if the Likud leadership meekly follows in his footsteps, as it always does, Israeli democracy will be thrown into turmoil. The bad blood that Netanyahu is injecting into the election campaign will boil over. Israel could face an unprecedented constitutional crisis that, in a worst-case scenario, could demolish its democratic infrastructure and, potentially, lead to civil unrest.

The election fraud chicanery, which was spawned in Donald Trump’s wild fantasies, could turn out to be the trigger for the disintegration of Israel as we’ve known it.

Of course, the whole thing could also blow up in Netanyahu’s face. Although his ploy is being lauded as a brilliant if devilish masterstroke, theoretically it could also be his undoing. The next few days will indicate whether the election fraud takes hold, but the final verdict will come down at 10 P.M. on September 17, when the votes are tallied.

Netanyahu is wagering that he can fool enough people enough of the time to get reelected, but he may find that he has ventured on a (Brooklyn) bridge too far. It all depends on whether enough right-leaning Israelis recognize Netanyahu’s cynical swindle for what it is.

After all, nothing horrifies Israelis more than the realization that they are being taken for a ride, or, in Israeli lingo, that Netanyahu regards them as “freierim,” playing them for patsies to his heart’s content.