Let my people vote (earlier): Israel set for chaotic eve-of-Passover election

A fitting end to the dysfunctional 35th Government? Likud and Blue and White can’t agree on a bill that would ensure ballot-counting doesn’t run into March 29 holiday

Haviv Rettig Gur

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

Volunteers sort election posters bearing the portrait of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the Likud party's electoral campaign headquarters in Tel Aviv on March 2, 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP)
Volunteers sort election posters bearing the portrait of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the Likud party's electoral campaign headquarters in Tel Aviv on March 2, 2020. (Jack Guez/AFP)

When the clock strikes midnight on Tuesday night, it will signal the Knesset’s legal deadline for passing the 2020 state budget. If a budget law isn’t passed by then, or another bill isn’t passed extending the deadline, then the parliament will dissolve and elections will be called for 90 days later, on March 23.

And that’s a problem. Not only because it will mean a fourth election in two years, not only because polls suggest the results may be as indecisive as the last three rounds, and not even because the Knesset would be disbanding once again without passing a budget for either 2020 or 2021.

It’s a problem because the Jewish holiday of Passover, when elections officials must be sent home for the holiday, begins just six days later, on March 29. And since March 29 is a Sunday, the Central Elections Committee must shut down operations by midday two days earlier, on Friday the 27th — less than four workdays after election day.

An election that takes place under pandemic distancing rules — the most optimistic forecasts have just enough vaccines in Israel by election day for perhaps half the population — gives officials just four days to administer the nationwide vote and count all ballots, including those from the army and overseas, before the system must go into an extended shutdown for the Sabbath and the seven-day holiday.

It’s a recipe for delays, ballot-counting problems, and general chaos.

The Central Elections Committee counts ballots from soldiers and absentee voters at the Knesset in Jerusalem, April 10, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

To ensure the election goes smoothly, a bill has advanced in the Knesset that would dissolve the parliament purposefully, and not automatically through the budget deadline. By dissolving via a bill, the Knesset can set a different election day. The bill, advanced by Blue and White, stipulates a more workable March 16.

But the bill is stuck. As with everything else in the outgoing government, Likud and Blue and White are using it to angle for advantage against each other. That’s meant that a basic piece of legislation meant to ensure election day can go off without a hitch is unlikely to pass into law.

Blue and White wrote into the bill two stipulations that Likud objects to: reducing public campaign funding, and making online campaigning subject to election advertising limits and regulations.

Israeli election funding is public and strictly limited. And election advertising is carefully controlled during the 90 days of the campaign, with limits to the amount of airtime granted to each party and even on the content of the ads.

Those limits are one of the drivers of the right’s efforts in recent years to establish media outlets tasked with right-wing advocacy, like Israel Hayom and Channel 20. The press is not subject to the same limits as political parties.

In this September 6, 2019 photo, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz is surrounded by supporters during an election campaign stop at a mall in Kiryat Ono, Israel. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

And since the campaign laws were written before the internet became ubiquitous, they do not apply to the online space. Advertising is prohibited just before and on election day, but Likud habitually produces online videos and pushes them out on social media accounts during that period. Election law enforcers have been unable to stop the practice.

The stipulations put forward by Blue and White would thus dramatically rein in Likud’s campaign. Needless to say, Likud vehemently opposes both measures.

It makes sense, then, that Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin of Likud, when he saw the bill on the agenda on Monday, delayed it to Tuesday, then delayed it again to next Sunday, just three days before the election deadline.

Likud is trying to run out the clock. It prefers a chaotic eve-of-Passover election with its online campaign intact to an orderly vote in which it cannot run the campaign it wants to run, which leans heavily on its online and social media strategy.

But Likud is no mere victim of Blue and White machinations. It is itself seeking to add to the election bill two articles that would hurt Gideon Sa’ar, who split from Likud last week and has been revealed in polls as a major threat to Benjamin Netanyahu’s hold on the prime minister’s seat.

Then-Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar speaks to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem, February 19, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The first article would force Sa’ar’s New Hope party to take on the NIS 3.5 million ($1.08 million) in campaign debts put on Likud’s ledger by the merger with the now-defunct Kulanu party. Kulanu’s lone MK, Yifat Shasha-Biton, caucused with Likud until last week, when she joined Sa’ar’s new party. The second article seeks to define Sa’ar’s new party, registered on Wednesday, as an already existing party because it is absorbing the Derech Eretz faction — a highly technical move whose upshot is simple: it would lose Sa’ar a significant portion of his campaign funding for the coming race.

Neither stipulation is likely to pass into law, and both have already been flagged by Knesset officials as violations of existing election rules. But the point isn’t to have them pass. It’s to create negotiating leverage for removing Blue and White’s articles.

Blue and White has not blinked yet, itself preferring the attempt to force new limits on the campaigns — targeting Likud first of all — over a more orderly election.

On Wednesday, Knesset legal officials corrected a previous scheduling error, ruling that by law next Wednesday’s budget deadline falls on the midnight between Tuesday and Wednesday, and not, as the political system had assumed since August, on Wednesday night. Another day lost for the effort to ensure an orderly vote can be held.

Can the Knesset pass the election bill through the required three readings and two committee write-ups between Sunday and Tuesday? With some cross-party cooperation, it’s technically possible, assuming Blue and White and Likud are able to prioritize an orderly election over their attempts to hamper the campaigns of their opponents. Alas, very little in the eight-month lifespan of the outgoing government suggests such cooperation will be forthcoming.

It’s a fitting end to Israel’s 35th Government, lurching to the cliff’s edge unable to pass a state budget, and for now unable even to advance a law to ensure a smooth election can be held in the spring.

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