What may appear to be just another backroom political deal — a reported offer from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of a cabinet post for Zehut party Moshe Feiglin if he pulls his party out of the September elections — could in fact be election fraud and bribery that, if implemented, could force a dramatic nationwide revote, according to a former Likud lawyer who now works for the Yisrael Beytenu party.
Eitan Haberman, once the long-term chief legal adviser of the Likud party and currently serving in that role for its rival, made the allegation in a talk with The Times of Israel on Tuesday, a day after Feiglin confirmed he was being pressured to leave the race and had received various offers to do so. Feiglin met again with Netanyahu on Wednesday.
The ruling Likud party is reportedly pressuring Zehut and fellow far-right party Otzma Yehudit to drop out of the election in order to prevent right-wing votes from being “wasted” on those factions, both of which are expected to fall short of the electoral threshold for entering the Knesset. Polls currently predict that the right-wing bloc will not have a majority without Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party, which has said it will recommend a unity government.
In trying to convince Feiglin to end his run, Netanyahu, who met with the former Likud MK on Friday, reportedly offered to cover all of Zehut’s campaign costs so far, give Feiglin an economics-related ministry in a future government, and legalize personal use of cannabis, a plank of Zehut’s platform.
According to Haberman, the reported offer could constitute bribery and, perhaps more significantly, invalidate the entire election and force a repeat ballot.
“There is clear and explicit legal precedent ruling that this is illegal,” Haberman said in a phone interview. “Fromer went to prison for this and an entire municipal election was redone.”
The veteran Israeli political legal expert was referring to the case of Nahariya mayor Ron Fromer, who in 2008 was convicted of bribery for signing agreements with rival candidates that would see them drop out of the mayoral race in return for prominent positions on the city council.
In its ruling, the Haifa Magistrate’s Court accepted the claim of the state prosecution that Fromer, during the 2003 election, had made deals with two candidates according to which he would appoint them and activists on their behalf to senior municipal positions if they left the race, giving him a clearer shot against his chief rival, Jaki Sebag. The court said the promise was considered election fraud and tantamount to the crime of “giving bribes during an election.”
Along with the criminal charges against Fromer, the Haifa District Court in a civil case nullified the results of the 2003 election due to the agreements and called new elections, in which Froman lost to Sebag, who still serves as mayor.
In that ruling, Judge Micha Lindestrauss, who would go on to serve as state comptroller, wrote: “New elections do require a great deal of effort, both financially and organizationally… but this effort does not weigh against the need to root out corruption that ultimately distorts the will of the voter. The purity of the elections is at the heart of democracy and harming the purity of the elections is a real threat to the existence of the most important democratic process: free and fair elections.”
According to Haberman, the reported offer to Feiglin “appears to be the exact same thing. He is being offered a government position in return for pulling out of the election.”
Haberman said there was “no question” that if the deal were agreed upon, “those involved could be prosecuted for election fraud and bribery.” He also said that the offer itself, even if it is not accepted, could be considered criminal “even though it looks like a normal political deal.”
Such deals, whereby Knesset candidates or parties drop out of the race in return for political favors, are commonplace in Israel in the run-up to elections. The difference in this case, Haberman contended, is that those deals take place before the final party candidate lists are presented to the Central Election’s Committee. Once that takes place — this year the final date was August 31 — “the candidates gain a special status according to the law,” he said.
The Likud party did not respond to a request to comment on the claims of illegality in the reported offer.
Regarding the possibility of such an offer causing a potential revote, Haberman said that would depend on if “it can be proved that there was a significant impact on the election results, and we won’t know that until after the vote.”
Zehut is currently polling at around 2.9 percent of the vote, just short of the 3.25% electoral threshold and in keeping with the party’s ballot-box showing in the April election, when it won 118,031 votes, or 2.74% of the total.
Feiglin responded to the reports of the offer with a post to his Facebook page Monday night clarifying that he had signed no agreement to stop campaigning. Instead, he asserted that Zehut, combines which far-right nationalist policies, including annexation of the West Bank and a reconquest of Gaza, with libertarian domestic positions, is “gathering steam for the elections.”
“It is no secret that heavy pressure is being applied to us to remove our candidacy and we are constantly getting various offers; however I will not violate my assurances to voters,” he wrote. “To remove any doubt — even if I received any offer that very significantly advances Zehut’s platform, and even if I feel a responsibility to consider it instead of totally rejecting, I will not make any decision that stands in contrast to my assurances.”
At a party campaign event on Tuesday night, Feiglin said reports he was pulling out of the race were “fake news” and that he “wasn’t going anywhere.”
But in a statement released after the event, the party appeared to take a step back from Feiglin’s apparent outright rejection of any potential offer.
“There is no agreement with anyone,” a Zehut spokesperson clarified. “There are many proposals that are being made to us and if a serious proposal comes that we cannot reject outright, we will consider it seriously… Right now, there is no such offer.”