Camera bill likely to pass Knesset in rushed vote, but still faces legal hurdle

Right-wing parties back Likud-led proposal, but several left-wing slates vow to petition High Court, and attorney general undecided if he’ll defend government

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit at a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on February 2, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90/ File)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit at a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on February 2, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90/ File)

The Knesset this week is likely to advance into law a controversial proposal pushed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that would allow party officials to monitor polling stations with cameras during next week’s elections. The bill, however, still faces significant legal hurdles.

On Sunday, the heads of the right-wing Yamina and Yisrael Beytenu parties announced they would support the proposal, while acknowledging that the legislation is a campaign ploy of Netanyahu’s Likud. Spokesmen for the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, and Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu, told The Times of Israel that their respective slates would also vote in favor of the bill, giving it a likely 65 or so of the 120 Knesset votes.

A spokesman for Kahlon, whose Kulanu party merged with the Likud shortly after the April election, said his party’s four lawmakers would vote in favor of the bill. But Channel 13 reported that retiring Kulanu MK Roy Folkman plans to boycott the vote.

The support comes despite opposition from Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who argued in a legal opinion last week that such consequential legislation should not be rushed through the Knesset chamber in a matter of days in order to ensure that the government has the means to enforce it. Mandelblit, the government’s top legal representative, argued that the Likud bill was “aberrant and flawed,” could play havoc with the voting process and undermine the entire election.

Netanyahu and Likud MKs have subsequently gone on the offensive against the position voiced by Mandelblit and Hanan Melcer, the Central Elections Committee chairman, who last month barred party polling station representatives using cameras. President Reuven Rivlin spoke out against the criticism, saying Sunday that he “reject[ed] with disgust the attempts to erode public trust in these bodies and institutions.”

Citizens cast their ballots at a voting station in Jerusalem, during the Knesset elections, on April 9, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The bill was approved unanimously by the cabinet on Sunday afternoon and Likud intends to advance it in a hyper-accelerated procedure between Monday and Wednesday.

According to the plan, a special committee chaired by Likud MK and Netanyahu ally Miki Zohar will be formed Monday and the bill will be brought for the first of three votes in the Knesset plenum needed for it to officially become law. On Tuesday, a full-day debate in the Knesset will be held on the proposal, and on Wednesday, it will be brought for second- and third- reading votes in the Knesset plenum.

In order to pass the bill, Zohar is expected to grant the Knesset an exemption from a standard requirement that 45 days pass from the submission of a bill before it is signed into law.

The Blue and White, Labor, Democratic Camp, and Joint List parties have all announced that they would petition the High Court of Justice against the bill if it is passed into law. Justice Ministry officials told Channel 12 that Mandleblit has not made up his mind whether he would agree to defend the legislation on the government’s behalf if it indeed came up before the top court.

A cabinet source told The Times of Israel that during the part of the cabinet meeting that was closed to the press, Mandelblit said: “The chairman of the Central Elections Committee says it will cause irregularities on Election Day — so I’m against the law. I’m in favor of cameras, but it needs to be done properly.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, far left, and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, far right, attend the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on September 8, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/Flash90)

Central Elections Committee’s pilot plan: 3,000 apolitical observers

On Sunday afternoon, the Central Elections Committee issued a statement offering further details on the pilot program of election monitors that Melcer instructed to be formed in his ruling last month that banned party officials from using cameras in polling stations.

The election body said that some 3,000 non-party affiliated individuals, among them lawyers and accountants, will tour polling stations at random during the September 17 vote. In addition, they will also pay visits to locations flagged during the April elections as having demonstrated irregular voting patterns. This team of poll watchers will be equipped with police-grade body cameras that they will be able to use in cases of fraud after having received approval from the Central Election Committee. They will also be required to film the entire ballot-counting process after the last voter has left the ballot station.

Likud in a statement issued in response to the Central Elections Committee announcement argued that the pilot program is insufficient and that they intend to push forward with the legislation.

Netanyahu claimed earlier Sunday, without citing proof, that had Likud been able to prevent voter fraud in Arab towns, the Ra’am Balad party would not have crossed the electoral threshold and the premier would have been able to form a coalition of 61 seats, instead of forcing the year’s second election.

However, Central Election Committee director Orly Adas pointed out in Hebrew media interviews Sunday that of the 140 voter fraud allegations brought forth by the Likud, none contained sufficient evidence to move forward with an indictment. Moreover, the suspicions of voter fraud where charges are slated to be filed benefited Likud and Shas, and not the Arab parties.

A hidden camera allegedly snuck into a polling station in an Arab town by a Likud observer during parliamentary elections on April 9, 2019. (Courtesy Hadash-Ta’al)

Adas told Channel 12 that allowing hundreds of biased party officials to film whenever they deem necessary would almost certainly lead to brawls in polling stations. She also said that the Central Elections Committee is not prepared to effectively implement such legislation given the rushed manner in which it is being advanced.

The Israel Democracy Institute think tank issued a lengthy statement blasting the cabinet’s green-lighting of the legislation, calling it “particularly blatant since the expedited governmental bill was submitted by a transitional government, which had failed to win the confidence of the current Knesset, and is being promoted only a few days before the elections… in a manner that prevents the necessary organization and preparation for such a fundamental change.”

During the April 9 vote, Likud equipped some 1,200 polling officials working at ballot stations in Arab population centers with hidden body cameras to prevent what the party claims was rampant fraud that has occurred in the community.

Critics charged that Likud’s efforts were a form of voter intimidation designed to keep the non-Jewish minority from the polls, a claim seemingly corroborated by the company contracted by Likud to carry out the operation.

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