After flouting election law, PM and Likud take down photos with IDF troops

Election regulations forbid using uniformed soldiers in campaign ads, but Netanyahu has been flaunting his visits to bases and openly mocking the restriction

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, second left, visiting a weapons depot at the Sirkin IDF base in central Israel, January 30, 2019. (Haim Tzach/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, second left, visiting a weapons depot at the Sirkin IDF base in central Israel, January 30, 2019. (Haim Tzach/GPO)

Benjamin Netanyahu’s social media team has removed photos and videos of him visiting IDF soldiers and bases after the prime minister was ordered to do so this week by the attorney general, his ministry’s legal adviser and the Supreme Court justice who heads Israel’s Central Elections Commission.

Israeli campaign advertising laws forbid using uniformed soldiers in campaign materials, and it is illegal to conduct political campaigns on IDF bases.

On Wednesday, after Netanyahu appeared to flout an order last week from the attorney general to abide by the relevant laws, the Central Elections Committee, a judge-led panel with representatives from major political parties that administers the elections, issued a temporary injunction banning Netanyahu and his Likud party from publishing social media photos of the premier, who also serves as defense minister, alongside IDF soldiers.

By Wednesday evening, however, nearly all photos of Netanyahu with uniformed IDF soldiers appeared to have been removed from the prime minister’s and his party’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit issued his legal opinion last Thursday, reiterating the prohibition on candidates publicizing photographs of their meetings with IDF soldiers for campaign purposes until Israelis head to the polls on April 9. The opinion called out Netanyahu specifically, as his office had been releasing photographs of him visiting IDF units several times a week since the Knesset voted to head to elections in December.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a video to his social media followers, February 11, 2019. (Screenshot: Twitter)

Any photos after January 9, the official start of the election campaign, were prohibited from publication, according to the opinion, including on social media.

Following the announcement, Netanyahu this week canceled two scheduled visits to army bases: on Monday to a Navy base in Haifa, and on Tuesday to a Givati Brigade exercise in the Jordan Valley.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu mocked Mandelblit’s decision as “amusing” in a video to his social media followers ahead of a separate visit to a Haifa-area Navy base — after which his office released new photos of Netanyahu with IDF troops.

“I would’ve really liked to take you inside, but they have some weird instruction — no taking photos with soldiers,” he said in the video. “I was also a soldier, so can I not be photographed as well?”

Justice Hanan Melcer. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Mandelblit’s decision only refers to soldiers who are currently serving, since only they are banned from engaging in public political activity. The attorney general had issued the ruling in response to a Labor Party petition filed against Netanyahu.

Apparently in response to the open disregard for the attorney general’s stipulations, Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer, who heads the Central Elections Committee, issued the injunction on Wednesday against publicizing such pictures or videos, and ordered all photos and videos currently posted to political social media accounts deleted immediately.

Shortly after Melcer’s injunction, the Prime Minister’s Office legal adviser, Shlomit Barnea Farago, notified the prime minister in a letter that he was required by law to ensure that the photos and videos with uniformed soldiers posted after January 9 were deleted from his and Likud’s social media accounts.

A debate on the issue before the committee may be held on Sunday. Likud requested a delay until after the weekend because Netanyahu is abroad at a diplomatic conference in Warsaw, Poland, and the party’s legal adviser is busy overseeing a recount of primary results from last week’s internal party vote, which saw significant irregularities.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a State Control Committee meeting in the Knesset on December 3, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Mandelblit’s opinion also said Netanyahu cannot deliver political speeches during IDF base visits.

Mandelblit clarified the restrictions only apply to publicizing the photos and videos. There is no limit on the defense minister conducting base visits, nor do the rules apply in cases of operational need, such as a public announcement in a national-security emergency

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