Central Elections Committee to Likud: Commit to law ending election manipulation

Judge in charge of April’s elections says PM’s party must stop blocking wide-reaching transparency bill extending propaganda restrictions to cover online content

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

In this March 17, 2015 file photo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party supporters react to exit poll results at the party's election headquarters In Tel Aviv. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Miriam Alster/FLASH90, shows the counting of ballots from soldiers and absentees at the Knesset in Jerusalem, a day after the 2015 general elections, March 18, 2015.

The Central Elections Committee on Sunday ordered the Likud party to commit to passing legislation extending the current election propaganda laws to include online content, or alternatively, agree to an accord between all parties forcing them to clearly claim authorship of all their online campaign materials.

The chair of Central Elections Committee, Supreme Court Judge Hanan Melcer, said that the ruling party must say by Tuesday whether it will lift its opposition to a bill that would give legal teeth to the body in charge of managing the national ballot in order to prevent online meddling that “could pose a direct threat to the Israel’s democracy.”

Current protection from fake news and disinformation mainly comes from the Elections Law (Propaganda Methods) of 1959, which was written before the advent of the internet and primarily deals with advertising on billboards, radio, planes and boats. Amendments since then have extended the law to TV, regional radio stations and published election surveys, but not yet to the internet.

The Likud party on Sunday pushed back at all efforts to apply at least basic transparency standards on online campaigning.

Justice Hanan Melcer. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Days after it was revealed that the Shin Bet security agency has intelligence proving that a foreign country intends to influence the April election via online meddling, the elections committee gathered for the first public hearing of this election cycle to debate a petition calling to apply such standards by passing legislation currently being blocked by Likud.

In November 2017, a committee chaired by former Supreme Court president Dorit Beinisch, and tasked with reviewing election regulations and campaigning, presented a proposal not only to extend the election propaganda law to online content but also to give the Central Elections Committee the legal power to prevent online manipulation.

A bill based on that proposal is currently being held up in Knesset committee by the Likud party, with sources with direct knowledge of the legislative process telling The Times of Israel that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had personally ordered it be shelved.

The bill, which requires only one more plenary vote to become law, would specifically clamp down on fake news by compelling the authors of any paid political content, including comments, to identify themselves publicly — a move that would apply both to the internet and to more traditional campaign materials, such as posters.

Presenting the petition to the committee, Adv. Shachar Ben Meir said that passing the law would provide a vital service to voters before the elections by giving them the tools to spot fake news and campaign propaganda.

“We simply want the public to be able to know when they are faced with campaign material and to know who is behind it. We are not asking to get involved in the content, just for it to be clear who is behind it,” he said.

In the wake of the Shin Bet’s revelation, Netanyahu told reporters last week, “Israel is prepared to thwart a cyber intervention, we’re prepared for any scenario and there’s no country more prepared than we are.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces elections will be held in April, 2019, at a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset, December 24, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

Indeed, in a statement last week, the committee said it was devising a detailed plan of action to thwart attempts to meddle in the elections. But as the committee’s spokesman Giora Pordes told The Times of Israel, it is neither responsible for policing voter manipulation online, nor does it currently have the tools to do so.

While representatives from every other major party said Sunday that they would support immediately passing the proposal to give the committee such tools, Attorney Avi Halevy, the Likud party’s chief legal adviser, said it was “not realistic” to push through such broad legislation “under duress.”

Halevy admitted that the current law was out of date but said the ruling party could not agree to backing the proposed changes in a “rushed and careless” manner. “We will support it but it will take time, and I’m not sure how long,” he said.

“We have a clear timetable: before the elections,” Melcer responded, telling Halevy that if the party could not commit to backing the bill, then the committee would begin deliberations on an ad hoc agreement between all parties to treat anonymity for paid online campaigning as a breach of a specific clause of the Election Law and therefore be subject to fines.

Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, an expert on technology policy at the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute and a cosignatory to the petition, told the committee that such a decision would not go far enough, but was better than nothing.

“We are dealing with manipulation in breadth and depth that we have never seen before,” she warned. “We know that there are legal difficulties but there is an immediate need in order to protect our elections and our democracy,”

Sue Surkes contributed to this report.

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