Israel Pulse

Likud's election day dirty tricks

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Article Summary
The day after Knesset elections, a public relations firm that worked for the Likud revealed the party's “secret plan” to deter Israeli Arabs from voting.

In the 2015 election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used scare tactics to motivate his supporters to the polls. “The right-wing government is in danger,” he claimed. “Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves,” he said on election day. In the 2019 election, Netanyahu and the Likud tried to scare Arab voters by means of an apparently criminal scheme of planting 1,300 hidden cameras at polling sites in Arab areas to deter them from practicing their basic civic right — voting. 

The day after this year's election, held April 9, the public relations firm Kaizler Inbar, which worked for the Likud, revealed the party's “secret plan” and bragged that it had been “closely followed by the prime minister and Minister Yariv Levin.” The firm’s directors described the plan in a boastful post:

Don’t tell anyone. It was us. Did you see the reports in the media that fired up the field on election day? The ones that spoke of cameras planted at polling sites in the Arab sector that prevented thousands of false votes? If so, we are ‘to blame’ for this move. After a long preparation period, an amazing logistical arrangement, and deep and close cooperation with the best people in Likud, we launched an operation that decisively contributed to one of the most important achievements in the national [right-wing] camp.… Because we put our observers at every poll, the voting rate was lower than 50%, the lowest in recent years … This is where we should give huge thanks to 1,350 field workers, activists of all ages and colors, from Eilat in the south to Hisfin in the north, who were present at polling sites all over the country, from the smallest villages to the largest Arab cities. 

Thus, it is clear that the goal was to scare Arab voters so that they wouldn't go to their polling stations and endanger the continuation of Netanyahu’s grip on power. The self-satisfied public relations directors even added an updated photo of themselves with Netanyahu and his wife, Sara. 

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Raslan Mahajnah, an attorney, Hadash activist and resident of Umm al-Fahm, told Al-Monitor that on election day, yarmulke-wearing (Jewish Orthodox) youths had come to the city that morning, all of them, he said, settlers, carrying appropriate authorization to act as poll watchers.

“They were received warmly and took their place alongside members of the local poll committee,” Mahajnah said. “But we saw that they behaved strangely. Every so often they rose from their chairs to go behind the divider. In the end, we discovered that they carried hidden cameras. We called the police because it’s an illegal act.” 

After the hidden cameras at Arab polling sites were revealed, Netanyahu didn’t even try to deny it. Speaking to the media at his polling place, he said, “There should be cameras everywhere, not hidden ones.” He claimed this would “ensure a fair vote.”

Following the discovery of the hidden cameras and complaints about them, the chairman of the Central Elections Committee, High Court Justice Hanan Melcer, released an expedited order, stating, “The cameras should not photograph … except in a case of a concern for real harm to the purity of the election or their proper order.” 

As the public relations firm admitted, 1,350 field workers were apparently recruited for the secret and apparently illegal operation, many of them religious Zionists who, it seems, had never visited an Arab town before election day. One of them sent his worried friends a very unexpected WhatsApp message that made it onto Facebook:

I too was assigned to work at the polls in [the Arab town of] Umm al-Fahm. I too was scared to death to enter this terrorist city and to spend a whole day among its residents.… I expected to find violent, lying people who support terror and cheat. I am glad to report that I was disappointed.… After a personal encounter face to face, without masks, stigmas or prejudice, I discovered wonderful people. Honest, welcoming and generous people. People who believe in the sacredness of all of creation and in the prohibition to harm any person no matter who he is.… Another stigma that I was born and raised with has been broken. Who would believe it, but I have Arab friends!

Mahajnah, recounting the experience from his perspective, stated, “After we called the police, they were taken for questioning at the local station. Around 3 p.m., they returned with police escort, and they let them enter. Then they discovered that we are human. We started to talk, and we gave them our food and drink.”

He further stated, “Our people were deeply insulted at the need to photograph them in order to prevent fraud. [The Likud] wanted to scare voters, but I’m not sure that’s what caused voters to refrain from coming to the polls. The reasons are many, among them, a big campaign of the Islamic Movement and the Sons of the Village to boycott the election. But what’s important is that again Netanyahu wanted to use us to scare people and to sow hatred and panic.” 

More than anything, the hidden cameras project testifies to Netanyahu’s methods, although on election night after he learned of his victory he declared that he wanted to be everyone’s prime minister. In the meantime, Knesset members Aida Touma Sliman from Hadash-Ta’al and Michal Rozin from Meretz and the rights organization Adalah have petitioned the attorney general to investigate the incident. Touma Sliman charges that the prime minister has slandered an entire sector, a fifth of the country’s citizens, marking them as cheaters and criminals, “which in itself constitutes clear incitement against Arab citizens.” 

Some Arab party activists are demanding a new vote in Arab communities, claiming that the use of intimidation, the cameras, stole votes from them. Others are arguing, however, that the conspiracy was revealed at the start of election day, so it is doubtful whether the reporting on the cameras' existence had any influence on turnout. 

One thing is, however, clear: The candid post by the religious Zionist activist proves the extent to which the prime minister’s incitement toward Arab citizens, which is not conducted secretly or covertly, has become influential and pervasive. “Now you can see exactly what we experience every day, and what we expect to see in the coming years,” Mahajnah said with sadness and concern.

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Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.

Eldar has published two books: "Eyeless in Gaza" (2005), which anticipated the Hamas victory in the subsequent Palestinian elections, and "Getting to Know Hamas" (2012), which won the Yitzhak Sadeh Prize for Military Literature. He was awarded the Ophir Prize (Israeli Oscar) twice for his documentary films: "Precious Life" (2010) and "Foreign Land" (2018). "Precious Life" was also shortlisted for an Oscar and was broadcast on HBO. He has a master's degree in Middle East studies from the Hebrew University. On Twitter: @shlomieldar

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