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'Arab Voter Fraud'? What's Really Behind Netanyahu's Push for Cameras in Polling Stations

Likud is spreading unfounded claims of attempts to 'steal the election,' while advancing a fast-track bill to allow its representatives to film in polling stations

Polling station at southern Israel, April 9, 2019.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The government approved on Sunday a bill promoted by Likud that would allow political party representatives sent to oversee the vote to film at polling stations in the September 17 general election.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 39Haaretz

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's party is attempting to circumvent a decision by the Central Election Committee, which banned placing cameras at polling stations, by disseminating unfounded claims of "stealing the election."

Both the attorney general and Israel's president sharply criticized the bill.

>> Read more: Israeli president delivers rare rebuke after Netanyahu gov't approves cameras in ballots ■ Don’t give them cameras | Haaretz Editorial ■ Scaring Arab voters away in droves | Haaretz Editorial

How did these claims come about, what is allowed and what isn’t and what exactly is Likud trying to achieve?

Can cameras be installed at polling stations?

The Central Election Committee forbade last week the placement of cameras at polling stations on Election Day, but permitted representatives of the committee to document the vote count process. According to this decision, polling stations monitors, who are representatives of the parties, are not allowed to film under any circumstances.

In addition, the vote count process may only be filmed by the monitors of the election integrity unit appointed by the Central Election Committee. The committee also said that in unusual circumstances, the monitors would be allowed to film during Election Day.

The Central Election Committee’s decision to allow partial filming came in response to a request by civil society groups for blanket prohibition on cameras at polling stations. Among these groups are Adalah – the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights, the Movement for Quality Government, the Israel Democracy Institute, as well as Hadash lawmaker Aida Touma-Suleiman.

Cameras installed by activists near Arab polling stations.
Hadash Spokesperson's Office

The request was submitted after Likud representatives on the polling station committees placed 1,200 hidden cameras in Arab communities in the April election. According to Likud, the filming was intended to prevent voting fraud in Arab communities, but following the April vote, the Likud representatives boasted that they had managed to lower voter turnout in the Arab sector.

According to the latest decision by the Central Election Committee, monitors will be stationed at random polling stations or at those that were found to be problematic in the past. The documentation will not be made available to the public, and will be used only by the police and the Central Election Committee.

However, if a reasonable suspicion of violating election integrity emerges at a certain polling station, with the police representatives unable to arrive there, the secretary of the polling station committee would be allowed to film the voting process on a cellphone, with prior approval by the Central Election Committee.

Central Elections Committee chairman Justice Hanan Melcer also determined that the methodical placement of cameras at polling stations would require the Knesset to pass legislation authorizing it. This is also the position of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit.

What is Likud attempting to do now?

Likud has begun advancing expedited legislation that would bypass the Central Election Committee and allow its representatives to document the voting process at polling station. The bill, which was framed by Justice Minister Amir Ohana from Likud and Interior Minister Arye Dery from Shas, would allow observers representing their parties on polling station committees to film at polling stations should suspicions of voting offences arise.

While the Central Election Committee decided that cameras may be placed randomly at polling stations across the country, or where problems arose in the past, Likud's initiative would allow each party running in the election to place cameras at every polling station it sees fit.  

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “We’ll continue to pursue the legislation to place cameras at polling stations, we won’t allow the election to be stolen."

It is unclear whether a bill initiated by a transitional government so close to the election would be approved by the High Court of Justice. Nevertheless, according to the letter of the law, a government that was dissolved by the Knesset can advance legislation even during election season.

What will Likud get out of this?

Likud estimates that if the bill is passed in the little time remaining until the election, the High Court of Justice might strike it down. A Likud official told Haaretz that one of the goals of the initiative was to create a campaign reminiscent of Netanyahu’s declaration on Election Day 2015 that “The Arabs are flocking to the polls in droves.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the Likud party, center, is escorted by security guards during a visit to the Hatikva market in Tel Aviv, Israel. April 2, 2019
Oded Balilty,AP

According to the official, publication of alleged voting fraud in the Arab community is intended to spur indifferent Likud voters to cast their ballot on Election Day.

Why does the Central Election Committee oppose Likud's initiative?

The committee opposes passing the bill on too short a notice before the election, fearing there won't be enough time to prepare for the implementation of the law, which will disrupt the voting process.

“Approval of such an essential change to election laws so close to Election Day might prevent the committee from administering Election Day properly. [Such legislation] could with a high degree of certainty deny some voters of the possibility of voting and even cause chaos during the voting process,” the committee stated in its position paper sent to the attorney general.

Why does the attorney general oppose the move?

On Wednesday the attorney general informed the prime minister and justice and interior ministers of that there was a “legal impediment” making it impossible to pass the bill. He reiterated this stance at Sunday’s government meeting.

Mendelblit made clear that Central Election Committee would have difficulty administering the voting should the bill pass. Such legislation would be harmful “both to the freedom to exercise the basic democratic right to vote and the legal obligation to hold free, secret and egalitarian election in a proper and reasonable manner.” Mendelblit added that “the bill raises legal and constitutional difficulties," noting that such legislation might deter weaker populations from voting.

What does Likud claim?

In a video published by Netanyahu after the Central Election Committee released its decision, the premier said that “We know that large-scale fraud exists, and it must be prevented. Allowing party-affiliated observers to film the voting process is the only way to prevent election theft."

Netanyahu also said that if voting fraud had been prevented in the April election, the Arab party Balad would not have passed the election threshold and the right-wing bloc would have won 61 seats. He retweeted a Likud tweet that the election had been “stolen.” However, an investigation into the matter showed this allegation to be unfounded speculation.

>> Read more: Netanyahu's fake news on Arab voter fraud | Fact Check ■ Casting doubt on election's integrity, Netanyahu commits the worst 'terror attack on democracy' | Opinion

Over the past few days Netanyahu has been repeatedly warning of the “election theft." On Friday He denied that in the April vote cameras were installed only in Arab communities, even though the public relations company behind the initiative boasted about lowering voter turnout among Israeli Arab voters. In addition, Likud ministers continue voicing warning of 'election theft.'  

“Unfortunately, what's happening in the Arab community is a phenomenon that I didn't know exists,” Absorption Minister Yoav Gallant told Israel Radio on Friday. “Generally speaking, there are no falsifications in the Jewish sector. I’m not saying there aren’t problems here and there, but there is no fraud.”

How did the unfounded claim that Balad “stole the election” emerge?

The Likud claim is based on a hearing in the Jerusalem District Court Tuesday of a petition by Amit Halevi, No. 36 on the Likud Knesset slate in April, who claimed his rightful place in the Knesset had been stolen due to mistakes and fraud in the vote count.

Halevi’s attorney, Simcha Rotman, said that he believes voting fraud took place at more than 200 polling stations. Rotman added that if the votes in those polling stations would have been disqualified, Balad would not have made it into the Knesset.

But no evidence was presented to support this claim. The police have thus far launched an investigation into six polling stations, following a request by the Central Election Committee. A source familiar with the details told Haaretz that the probe raised suspicions that voting fraud was carried out in favor of Likud and Shas. So far voting fraud beneficial for the Arab parties hasn't been detected.

Meanwhile, out of more than 100 polling stations that Likud complained about, only one of them raised sufficient solid suspicion to launch a criminal investigation. According to a representative of the prosecution, the only polling station where justification was found to disqualify the ballots was in the Druze village of Kisra-Sami, where Likud received the majority of votes.

In the wake of Rotman’s statement, Likud tweeted: “Today it turns out that if fraud had been avoided, Balad would not have passed the electoral threshold."

Likud's claim that mass disqualification of polling stations in Arab communities would have hurt the left-wing bloc and helped the right wing is not entirely disconnected from reality, however it lacks evidentiary basis.

“This is only speculation. This is not a scenario that anyone thinks has any basis,” a senior Likud figure admitted to Haaretz on Tuesday.

Was there fraud in the election?

Yes. The investigative report by Haaretz last month presented examples of mistakes in the counting process of thousands of votes and dozens of polling stations in various communities throughout the country.

However, the Central Election Committee believes that fraud was not methodical for one party or another. As of now, the committee asked the police to investigate only six polling stations out of about 10,500 on suspicion of fraud. Dozens of polling stations reported to the police as suspected of irregularities crossed ethnic and community lines.

>> Read more: Last Israeli election was riddled with irregularities and suspected voting fraud | Haaretz Investigation

The bill to place cameras at polling stations was approved on Sunday by the government's Ministerial Committee for Legislation. Now legislation can proceed to the three required readings of the bill in the Knesset.

Members of both the coalition and the opposition estimated that it would be possible to apply the new law during Election Day if the Knesset passes it and the High Court won't strike it down.

In addition, they said that the law could be quickly registered in Knesset protocols, and would include a clause noting that it is to be applied in the September election.