Inside story

In a tiny Israeli town, Likud sought a Trumpian ‘stolen election’ failsafe

Efforts to create mobile and mail-in voting for those in COVID quarantine for an upcoming local council race dredge up a distinctly American-style reaction

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Electoral workers count ballots cast by Israelis under home quarantine after returning from coronavirus infected zones,  in the central town of Shoham on March 4, 2020. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)
Electoral workers count ballots cast by Israelis under home quarantine after returning from coronavirus infected zones, in the central town of Shoham on March 4, 2020. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

One doesn’t usually expect high political drama from dry and technical discussions in the Knesset Internal Affairs Committee on voting procedures for local councils.

But a meeting of the committee on Monday had it all: shouts, accusations of fraud and “underhanded” manipulations, and an MK expelled from the gathering.

The subject of consternation was a November 24 special local council election in the sleepy central Israeli town of Tel Mond, population 13,000.

Seven residents of Tel Mond are currently confirmed as active coronavirus cases and a few dozen more are in preventive home quarantine. That fact has led some concerned MKs to look for ways to ensure that quarantined individuals are able to vote without having to visit their local ballot station.

Early last week, the Knesset plenum was set to consider a bill prepared by the Internal Affairs Committee that would give Interior Minister Aryeh Deri the power to introduce new voting procedures to ensure that anyone in COVID quarantine has a chance to cast their vote. The interior minister’s new powers would include, for example, establishing mobile ballot stations that drive to the homes of the quarantined, or even special mail-in ballots.

Illustrative: A Knesset committee meeting on October 14, 2020. (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset)

The bill’s formal intent is to allow the few dozen quarantined voters in Tel Mond to cast their ballots, but the power itself could theoretically be applied to a general election as well – and such an election appears to be only a few months away, as the deadline looms for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to dissolve the Knesset or risk handing his seat to partner-rival Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

Which is where the US presidential elections come in.

Fears of fraud

Likud leaders and activists have spent the past two weeks closely following the electoral drama of conservative champion and Netanyahu ally Donald Trump, often in minute detail.

Lacking meaningful firsthand knowledge of American elections, politics or broader history, but familiar with the discourse on conservative American social media accounts, Likud activists have followed Trump’s unfounded claims of massive voter fraud with alarm and some quiet calculations.

US President Donald Trump leaves after speaking at the White House, in Washington, November 5, 2020. He claimed the presidential election was rigged, he had won, and his victory was being stolen. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Shortly after major American news outlets like CNBC and Fox News called the election for Democrat Joe Biden, Likud MK Ariel Kallner took to social media on November 7 to decry the injustice done to the US president.

“What’s happening in the US should worry us very much. It’s the sort of thing that topples countries,” he wrote – a reference to claims of fraud, not necessarily to Biden’s win. “Remember that there were also many irregularities in our last election, and even now the High Court refuses to hand Likud the protocols of the vote count,” he added.

A voter fills out their ballot at Public School 160 on November 3, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (David Dee Delgado/Getty Images/AFP)

“It can’t continue this way. Election fraud, or even just the possibility of election fraud, can demolish public faith in democracy. From there it’s a short road to anarchy,” the MK added.

Kallner and fellow Likud legislator Keti Shitrit promptly drafted and advanced a bill that would mandate cameras at all polling stations – though not inside the ballot booth itself where voters cast their ballot – to record the counting, and would require that the protocols of each station’s record-keeping be made public.

Kallner’s bill seems to be in earnest, in the sense that it would enforce the new anti-fraud measures on all polling stations. Past efforts by Likud to combat voter fraud were only directed at areas where exceedingly few right-wing voters live, such as Israeli Arab towns and villages.

Targeting Arabs

In the April 2019 election, Likud deployed over 1,000 hidden bodycams on the shirts of its polling station observers in Arab towns in what it claimed was an effort to prevent voter fraud.

Many observers wondered how a camera carefully hidden from a potential fraudster’s sight could be said to be preventing acts of fraud, and suggested Likud’s real intention was a fishing expedition to catch evidence of individual instances of apparent fraud it can use later to question the validity of the Arab vote writ large if the election result proved unfavorable.

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)

In many stations, the cameras were quickly spotted by representatives of other parties, and the public stir it caused put Likud on the defensive and raised accusations it was trying to intimidate Arab voters.

It didn’t help Likud’s cries of innocence when the political campaigning firm the party hired to carry out the camera operation boasted on Facebook that its efforts were responsible for the decline in Arab turnout in that April 2019 race.

It was an incompetent, ill-conceived effort from the start. The attempt to hide the cameras seemed to contradict the claim that they were meant to prevent fraud, or indeed, that they were intended to frighten Arabs away from polling stations. To intimidate or deter, a camera must be visible. The Likud campaign emerged from the saga appearing simultaneously sinister and inept.

The episode also sparked fury among Arab Israelis, with some observers suggesting the sense among many Arabs that they were being bullied by the country’s ruling party helped to drive the record Arab turnout over the next two elections.

The tactic backfired for Likud, and by the third race, Netanyahu found himself asking Arab media outlets to interview him so he could tell their voters he was no bogeyman, and in fact had diverted more funds and government attention to their communities than any of his political opponents.

Trouble in Tel Mond

It was a Likud thus primed by Trump’s rhetoric and last year’s failed anti-Arab campaign that caught wind of the Tel Mond quarantined-voter bill when it first came up for discussion at the Knesset Internal Affairs Committee last week.

Likud firebrand MK Shlomo Karhi swung into action, asking for a “revision” under article 115 of the Knesset’s bylaws, which stipulates that any decision by a Knesset committee can be sent back to that committee at an MK’s request for a new debate and vote. A revision can only be triggered once for any decision.

Likud MK Shlomo Karhi at a Knesset committee meeting on January 13, 2020. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The bill thus returned to the Internal Affairs Committee, and Likud vowed to fight it tooth and nail.

It was that bill that was being debated on Monday in a fiery committee meeting that saw a dust-up between committee chair MK Miki Haimovich of Blue and White and MK Osnat Mark of Likud. At one point Haimovich said she’d had enough. She yelled at Mark to “leave the room at once!”

As she was escorted out by ushers, Mark shot back: “Of course, so you can do your underhanded deeds!”

It was pure theater. Likud’s Karhi is a voting member of the committee and remained in the room after her. So did the cameras. Whatever underhanded deeds Haimovich may have planned would have to wait for another day.

The important thing was that the accusation itself had been leveled. Something “underhanded” was underway.

Knesset ushers attempt to escort Likud MK Osnat Mark out of the Knesset Interior Committee meeting after she was ordered removed by committee chair MK Miki Haimovich, November 17, 2020. (Channel 12 screen capture)

Is Likud’s worry genuine?

Some in Likud are genuinely concerned about voter fraud. While the party’s campaign has used the specter of such fraud in manipulative and unscrupulous ways – “First you win, then you apologize,” was how Likud campaign manager Ofer Golan once expressed the party’s attitude – that doesn’t mean that voter fraud doesn’t happen, or that many in the Likud ranks, including some of its lawmakers, don’t believe the threat is real.

There have been indications over the years of small-scale but willful and systemic fraud in some Arab and Haredi villages, places small and politically homogeneous enough for a single party to dominate its local political machine, and for the place not to be worth other parties’ investment of resources and observers on election day.

The Kallner-Shitrit bill drafted after Trump’s election loss appears to be a product of this genuine concern. Kallner has said it would require cameras everywhere, among demographics that back Netanyahu and among those that don’t. Previous such efforts by Likud targeted only the latter.

But that doesn’t explain the opposition by Karhi, Mark and others to the bill to allow quarantined individuals to vote. Just 8,148 coronavirus cases are currently listed as active in Israel, according to the latest Health Ministry figures. A few tens of thousands more are in quarantine. Why go to war against apparently reasonable attempts to ensure those Israelis, some of them presumably supporters of Likud and Netanyahu, are able to vote?

Furthermore, it is Likud’s reliable ally Aryeh Deri, the interior minister and head of the Shas party, who is given the power to set the rules under the new bill.

Likud party campaign material and posters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strewn on the floor following election night at the party’s Tel Aviv headquarters, April 10, 2017. (Jack Guez/AFP)

There is a connecting thread that unites the Likud MKs fighting this fight. Karhi, Shitrit, Kallner and Mark were placed, respectively, 25th, 30th, 34th and 35th on the Likud Knesset list in the last primary race (their positions have shifted a bit with some up-list departures). The highest-placed, Karhi, is sitting on a reserved slot for a candidate from the Negev, a privileged position a candidate can only run for once. Karhi faces the same uphill battle as the other three to rise up the nationwide list so he can return to the Knesset in the next election. All are thus dangling on the edge, holding slots that the last few months of polls place firmly outside the next Knesset.

And all are fervent Netanyahu loyalists because of it. Netanyahu, they know, is their only hope for a better primary showing next time around.

It isn’t the details of any particular bill that matters. Whether Kallner and Shitrit’s bill has any meaningful chance of advancing is beside the point. What matters is the noise itself, setting the scene for a narrative of fraud and the rhetoric of a “stolen” election that can mobilize the base before and after the next election by casting doubt about the legitimacy of a negative outcome.

Ironically, the very thing that could weaken Netanyahu at the ballot box would serve as a convenient foil for such claims. At the height of the second COVID-19 wave in September, Israel had over 60,000 active cases and several hundred thousand quarantined. With each seat won in the March election representing some 37,000 votes, that’s a lot of Knesset seats.

If a third wave of the virus hits by election day, Netanyahu’s polling numbers are likely to dip just as hundreds of thousands of Israelis will need creative solutions to allow them to vote – handing Likud plenty of grist for questioning the validity of their ballots.

People wearing face masks shop for groceries at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem as Israel steps out of coronavirus lockdown and rolls back restrictions on October 20, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

On Tuesday, Blue and White grasped the Likud strategy. Haimovich soon struck a compromise with Karhi — or more accurately, caved wholly to Likud’s demands. The mobile ballot stations and mail votes were excised from the bill. Instead, a special taxi service will be established that will pick up and deliver each quarantined voter to a special ballot station established for the purpose and then return them home. The Knesset passed the new version of the bill into law by a 26-0 vote on Wednesday afternoon.

It’s not yet clear why a taxi service is necessarily more efficient or fraud-proof than a mobile ballot station with observers from all major parties aboard. But the point for Haimovich and Blue and White was simple, too. Concede the point, create a paper trail that gives Likud visible ownership over whatever solution is reached, and make it harder for the illegitimacy narrative to take hold.

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