Election panel head calls for criminal probe of Likud get-out-the-vote campaign

Election panel head calls for criminal probe of Likud get-out-the-vote campaign

Justice Hanan Melcer slams party for lying about its funding of purportedly nonpartisan ‘Move to the Right’ initiative, in suspected violation of campaign transparency laws

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the launch of his Likud party's election campaign in Ramat Gan, March 4, 2019. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the launch of his Likud party's election campaign in Ramat Gan, March 4, 2019. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer, the head of the Central Elections Committee, has urged to police to investigate alleged campaign law violations by the Likud party over its funding of an initiative to encourage right-wing voter turnout in the April 9 elections.

Likud’s director general, Tzuri Siso, told the Central Elections Committee on Tuesday that the party is behind the operation, called Move to the Right, and a source told the Haaretz daily that Likud has funded it to the tune of NIS 15 million (approximately $4.1 million).

“Move to the Right and Likud are one political and legal entity — the Likud party,” the party said in a statement, adding that it was a name given to election activity managed by a special office, similar to offices targeting specific groups such as new immigrants.

The admission marked a reversal from Likud’s claims up to Tuesday that it had no direct ties to Move to the Right, which was therefore not required to identify itself as part of the Likud election campaign under election advertising transparency laws.

The shift led Melcer to warn Siso he was “risking becoming involved in a crime,” noting that the Central Elections Committee, the body that runs Israel’s elections, is formally a committee of the Knesset with some judicial powers. Lying to the committee thus carries perjury penalties.

Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Melcer urged Likud to get its story straight. He also fined the party NIS 15,000 ($4,150) and recommended the opening of a police criminal probe — to be completed within three months and submitted to the attorney general and state comptroller — into whether Likud’s claims about Move to the Right amounted to criminal violations of campaign transparency laws.

In the Tuesday committee discussion, Likud’s attorney Avi Halevy said, “We have nothing to hide, so we’re not going to argue about this. All notices [released by Move to the Right] will carry Likud’s name.”

He added: “Move to the Right is essentially a rebranding of the [Likud campaign’s] volunteer or field operation. The funding came from Likud, and that’s public knowledge, and in any case would have become public in the report to the state comptroller” submitted by each party after the election.

Move to the Right’s website did not state it was part of Likud as of Wednesday morning, instead claiming to have been established by multiple right-wing bodies.

“Move to the Right was established by the right-wing parties and the national camp to bring about the right’s victory in the elections for the 21st Knesset and to maintain the right-wing government in the State of Israel,” the website stated.

Likud supporters at a party rally in Tel Aviv, on March 22, 2018 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The New Right and Yisrael Beytenu parties denied involvement in the organization on Tuesday, and the Union of Right-Wing Parties told Haaretz that it was not funding Move to the Right, but was working with Likud to recruit volunteers.

According to the newspaper, the initiative is headed by Mordechai Benita, who is close to Likud minister Ze’ev Elkin. Activists are spread across the country, concentrated in peripheral communities where turnout may be low but voters are inclined to the right side of the spectrum. Paid coordinators recruit volunteers to go house-to-house and encourage voting.

In the 2015 elections, the US-funded V15 organization was accused by Likud of inappropriate political meddling for its ostensible efforts to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by encouraging center-left voters to go vote on election day. The state comptroller cleared the organization of any campaign law violations.

In 2017, the Knesset passed the so-called V15 law, which aims to prevent wealthy donors from using political organizations to bypass election funding laws.

Attorney Shahar Ben Meir and the Labor party lodged the petition against Move to the Right with the Central Elections Committee, saying its claim to party independence violated the V15 law, since the organization was not immediately identifiable as being connected to the Likud party.

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