A watchdog on Wednesday called for an investigation into alleged electoral interference after a Likud lawmaker reportedly reached out to the Palestinians about encouraging Arab Israelis to support Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the March 23 elections.
The Movement for Quality Government in Israel said that it had written to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, asking them to investigate Likud MK Fateen Mulla, a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, “on suspicion of using public property to coordinate foreign interference in the Knesset elections.”
The watchdog said it had sought details of Mulla’s schedule under freedom of information laws, including “his meetings with officials from outside the country and details of conversations [made] from the Prime Minister’s Office.”
A lawmaker from the New Hope party will call for a debate on the matter, Ynet reported. The head of the party, Gideon Sa’ar — a former Likud minister who is now challenging Netanyahu in next month’s vote — has dismissed the prime minister’s reported efforts to distance himself from Mulla,
MK Zvi Hauser of New Hope, the head of the Foreign Affairs and Security committee, will call for a Knesset plenary meeting on the issue, the report said.
Mulla’s outreach to the Palestinian Liberation Organization was first reported by the Yedioth Ahronoth daily on Monday. Mulla confirmed to the newspaper that he held talks with the PLO’s Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society, but did not give any details on what was under discussion.
Palestinian sources told the newspaper that the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority had been in contact with Likud in the past few weeks over what the report called “quiet support” for Netanyahu in the coming election. Ramallah is reportedly concerned that Netanyahu could be ousted by an even more right-wing political leader.
According to the Yedioth report, the discussions surrounded drumming up support for Likud among Arab Israeli voters, or alternatively, encouraging them to not vote for the Joint List, a predominantly Arab faction that usually gains the lion’s share of the community’s support, sources said.
The report said relations between the Joint List and Ramallah have cooled over the past few months.
Likud was represented in the talks by Mulla, who hails from the Druze community, the report said, while on the Palestinian side were members of the PLO committee headed by panel leader Muhammad Al-Madani, a close confidant of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
The Palestinians invited Likud representatives to hold face-to-face talks in Ramallah, but the Israeli side backed down, apparently due to security considerations, the report said. This offended the Palestinians, one source said, and the issue has now receded.
The Ramallah sources said that after Israeli elections were called at the end of last year, PA analysts came to the conclusion that the campaign would be a battle between the right-wing Likud and the even more hawkish New Hope led by Sa’ar, along with the hard-right Yamina party led by MK Naftali Bennett, with the Palestinians preferring the relatively more moderate Likud of Netanyahu.
Palestinians are concerned that if either Sa’ar or Bennett gain power it could lead to unilateral moves such as the annexation of large parts of the West Bank, the sources said.
The PLO’s Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society said in a statement following the report that “meeting various Israeli political parties is part of its mission,” according to the semi-official WAFA news site.
“We have repeatedly seen in the various Israeli election campaigns many manifestations of Israelis defaming their opponents and in every time they involve the Palestinians in their campaign,” the statement said.
Mulla confirmed that there had been talks, but he described them as covering “all sorts of things on the backburner.”
“We are trying to do good for Israel and the Middle East,” he told Yedioth. “I can’t go into more details than that.”
The Joint List, he said, “does not represent the Palestinian people.”
According to Channel 12 news, Netanyahu was angered by the Yedioth report and rebuked Mulla.