Israel Pulse

Netanyahu: The art of Arab vote suppression

Article Summary
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pushing legislation to allow cameras in polling stations in Arab communities in an attempt to suppress the vote there and improve Likud's chances of emerging with at least one more Knesset seat than the Blue and White in Sept. 17 elections.

At the weekly session of the Israeli Cabinet on Sept. 8, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will ask ministers to approve the so-called Cameras Law, overriding objections by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on the installation of cameras at polling stations in Arab communities. Since the start of the current election cycle, Netanyahu has been obsessed with deploying the cameras in an attempt to intimidate voters and prevent them from exercising their democratic rights in the Sept. 17 elections.

Ahead of the elections held in April, Netanyahu had initiated what he called an “integrity campaign,” with his Likud party dispatching representatives equipped with 1,200 hidden cameras to polling stations on election day. When on the following day the results came in showing Arab voter turnout had dropped below 50%, and before Netanyahu realized he would not be able to form a new government, the prime minister and his wife, Sara, posed for photos with the heads of Kaizler Inbar, the public relations firm that carried out the NIS1.5 million ($430,000) operation.

Kaizler Inbar boasted of its achievement in reducing Arab voter turnout: “Following a long preparation period, amazing logistics, and deep and close cooperation with the best people in the Likud, we launched an operation that decisively contributed to one of the most important achievements of the national [right-wing] camp — ‘voting integrity’ in the Arab sector.… By placing our observers at every poll, voter participation was lower than 50%, the lowest in recent years.” 

Indeed, the cameras intimidated Arab voters for reasons that are hard to pin down. Arab Knesset member Issawi Freij of the Democratic Camp told Al-Monitor that Arab voters have always been mistrustful of the democratic process, and when rumors emerged on election day of right-wing activists documenting their personal, private moment with hidden cameras, they simply stayed home.

Five months have elapsed, and Israelis will go to the polls again in about 10 days. When Netanyahu realized that this time Justice Hanan Melcer, chair of the Central Election Committee, would ban cameras absent a legal underpinning for their deployment, he decided to push ahead with legislation.

To explain the need for this urgent bill, Netanyahu did as Netanyahu does and spread fake reports of extensive fraud in the April elections that gave the Arab Ra’am-Balad ticket enough votes to enter the Knesset. According to Netanyahu, this prevented him from forming a coalition government.

“The election is being stolen from us,” the Likud tweeted earlier this month and the prime minister retweeted. “Balad would not have crossed the electoral threshold [by getting 3.25% of votes cast], and the right-wing bloc led by Prime Minister Netanyahu would have had a 61-seat majority, saving the country unnecessary elections.”

Party tweeters and the prime minister himself were unfazed by the fact that Netanyahu was the one who had called the “unnecessary elections” because he feared President Reuven Rivlin would task someone else, either from the Likud or from a rival party, with forming a new government. Now the Likud is complaining that Balad, allegedly through fraud, stole the elections.

A wide-ranging Haaretz expose on Aug. 15 revealed extensive irregularities in the April elections, with faulty registration and suspected fraud not only at Arab polling stations but also in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities and in some West Bank settlements. None of this is of the slightest interest to Netanyahu, whose methods of Arab voter suppression have proven effective in the past. Take for example, his 2015 election day video urging his supporters to vote because the Arabs were flocking to polling stations “in droves.” Now, to advance the camera law, he has seized on Balad to focus the threat, giving it a name and a distinctive face.

Netanyahu’s incitement campaign is made that much easier by his fingering a party that advocates turning Israel into a state of all its citizens rather than just the Jewish ones. Balad was established by former Knesset member Azmi Bishara, who fled Israel in 2007 under the suspicion of spying for Hezbollah. Other former Balad lawmakers — among them Hanin Zoabi, Jamal Zahalka and Basel Ghattas (sentenced to jail for smuggling cell phones to Arabs imprisoned on terrorism charges) — are perceived by most Israeli Jews as seeking to undermine the Jewish character and security of the state. The party generates particularly strong antagonism among right-wing voters.

By even saying “Balad,” incitement is all but guaranteed. The combination of the words “Arabs,” “Balad” and “vote stealing” suffice for Netanyahu to convince his followers that the Cameras Law is essential to safeguarding Israeli democracy, even by blatantly trampling on the country’s law enforcement authorities and gatekeepers — Melcer and Mandelblit. Both oppose passage of the bill on the eve of elections.

On Sept. 5, before flying to London to meet British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and upon his return, Netanyahu repeatedly reiterated his message: “We will not let them steal the election from us.…There are cameras everywhere in Israel, there are cameras here, there are cameras in the supermarket, at the HMO, there is no place without cameras.” When a reporter pointed out that even his attorney general objects to cameras at polling stations, Netanyahu responded, “This is inconceivable.”

In a radio interview, Melcer warned of “chaos” at the polling stations if the Cameras Law goes through and that the integrity of the voting process would be undermined. Netanyahu does not care. He has only one goal in his sights – winning at least one more Knesset seat for Likud than the rival Blue and White, thus allowing him to present himself to President Reuven Rivlin as head of the country’s biggest party. This whole circus of cameras, fraud, election theft and Balad is aimed at obtaining that one additional seat, which Netanyahu believes is feasible if Arab voters stay at home.

If the government approves the Cameras Law on Sept. 8 and then pushes it through the Knesset, it will face a Supreme Court challenge. The Arab Joint List and other opposition parties are planning to petition against the bill, if it is approved. If the justices override the law, Netanyahu will have yet another enemy to blame for costing him the elections — the Supreme Court.

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Found in: Israeli elections

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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