Warnings have been heard in recent years to the effect that Israel’s liberal democracy has gone into retreat. Prof. Zeev Sternhell, an international expert on European fascism, said in 2014 that Israeli democracy “has become increasingly eroded… The water is already very hot. It hasn’t yet boiled, but it could do so tomorrow morning. It’s on the brink of boiling over.” (“Signs of fascism in Israel reached new peak during Gaza op, says renowned scholar,” Aug. 13, 2014).
The signs can be seen clearly: attacks on human rights organizations; limitations on freedom of expression in general, and on freedom of artistic and academic expression; legislation that harms Israeli Arab citizens; threats aimed at the Supreme Court and the attorney general; attacks on the rule of law; and religionization of the military and the school system.
Joining these signs on Election Day last week was the placement of cameras and recording devices at polling stations in over 1,000 Arab locales, with the goal of reducing the voter turnout of Arabs. This is a terrifying development. Especially because it reminds one of the methods white racists used and have continued to use in the American South since the end of the Civil War – and also used by Republican Party activists – to limit black participation in elections. Estimates are that these methods have reduced black voter turnout by tens of percent.
Racists and Republican supporters have in the past employed a wide range of methods: using violence against blacks to deter them from voting; distributing posters sponsored by the Ku Klux Klan in black neighborhoods, including warnings about participating in the elections; stationing groups of KKK members along roads leading to the polling stations; and erecting police roadblocks on the way to those stations in black neighborhoods. In addition, they've pulled some tricks inside the polling places themselves – for instance, only partially filling the positions responsible for overseeing the voting process; destroying ballots; fraudulently miscounting the votes; intervening in the operation of the voting machines; casting votes in the name of dead people; and not opening the stations at all.
Other methods have included demanding proof of payment of all taxes as a condition for voting; making literacy requirements and personality tests a condition for voting; preventing the possibility of absentee voting; scheduling polling hours in a way that would make it difficult for working blacks to vote; conditioning the right to vote on presentation of an identity document that blacks did not have; revoking the right to vote among those convicted of crimes, which affected mostly blacks; and delineating voting districts in a manner that favored Republican candidates.
In the 2016 elections, supporters of Donald Trump took pride in using some of these methods – including installing cameras at the polling stations. They justified this by explaining the need to ensure that everyone voted only once. This is exactly what those who placed the cameras and other devices last week here in Israel said too. In the United States it may be easy for whites who pretend to be serving in an official position to install cameras in schools in black neighborhoods – but how is it that cameras were installed by Likud supporters in Arab communities?
After the murder of Emil Grunzweig in February 1983, Prof. Shlomo Ben-Ami pointed out what he defined as severe political polarization in Israel, saying, in an interview with the now-defunct Koteret Rashit magazine: “The way of thinking that it is impossible, in any scenario, that a political adversary could possibly be right” leads to “everything being permissible.” It is also possible that the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is suspected of serious crimes and his rhetoric time after time attempts to undermine Israel’s legal institutions, also creates an atmosphere in which “everything is permissible” when it comes to achieving a political victory.
>> Read more: PR firm behind Likud's hidden cameras in Arab polling sites boasts of lowering voter turnout ■ Israeli Arab MK calls on attorney general to confiscate Likud cameras placed in Arab polling stations
Years ago, an acquaintance who came from a different Mediterranean country told me about Election Day there: You go to the polling place and everything looks wonderful. There is a curtain, ballot slips and envelopes. But at night they switch around the ballot boxes! Israel takes pride in its being “the only democracy in the Middle East,” but what happened during the election moves us farther away us from democracy and draws us closer to the Middle East.
Knesset members Michal Rozin (Meretz) and Aida Touma-Sliman (Hadash-Ta'al) have demanded that Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit urgently investigate the matter of the cameras and recording devices placed in the Arab polling stations. Such an examination is necessary, but more has to be done. In order for the situation not to deteriorate further, an official state commission of inquiry is necessary to examine how Knesset elections are conducted. Are the repeated rumors of fraud in the voting in Haredi communities true? Was the freedom of Arabs citizens to vote affected in the last election? What is the connection between the cameras and recording devices and Likud? Should we switch to an electronic system of voting? Is the composition of the committees that run the polling stations adequate? Is the oversight of those panels adequate?
The composition of an official state inquiry commission is determined by the president of the Supreme Court, but because establishment of such a body depends on approval by the cabinet – it is doubtful whether it will happen. It thus seems that what's required is establishment of a public commission of inquiry that will hear testimony and publicize its conclusions. Such a commission could also make an important contribution to furthering the integrity of the elections.
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