Liberman says his party is recruiting poll watchers for Haredi and Arab towns

Yisrael Beytenu chief also attacks right-wing religious politicians as false messiahs who want to return Israel to ‘an absurd and unbearable reality’

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman leads a faction meeting at the Knesset on April 30, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman leads a faction meeting at the Knesset on April 30, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman said Saturday that his party was recruiting activists to serve as poll watchers in ultra-Orthodox and Arab towns during the upcoming September 17 elections.

“We are launching a campaign to recruit volunteers… to sit at polling stations first and foremost in ultra-Orthodox communities, but also in Arab towns,” said Liberman during an onstage interview event in the South Sharon Regional Council.

“In [the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood] Mea Shearim there is 120% voter turnout. People are rising from the dead in order to vote,” he said, repeating a long-reported rumor regarding a voter fraud tactic in Haredi towns without providing specific proof.

Liberman went on to praise a decision made earlier this week by Central Elections Committee chairman Hanan Melcer to bar party representatives on polling station committees from being armed with cameras at ballot booths, instead tasking a new independent body of poll watchers with preventing voter fraud.

Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman (L) speaks during an onstage interview in the South Sharon Regional Council on August 31, 2019. (Courtesy)

“I think Likud and all parties will welcome an election oversight unit that will be statesmanlike and subject to the election committee chair,” Liberman said.

According to the new rules, as the voting ends at 10 p.m., a pilot team of independent poll watchers will be stationed at specific stations that were flagged by the election committee as having shown inconsistencies in their vote counts during last April’s election.

Illustrative: An ultra-Orthodox man casts his vote at a polling station during general elections on March 17, 2015. (Nati Shohat/FLASH90)

After the last voter had left the station, the poll watchers will be required to film the entire ballot counting process. They will not be allowed to leave the station until the tally has been completed, Melcer said.

Likud blasted Melcer’s ruling and has since began drafting legislation it will seek to pass before the September 17 vote, allowing their representatives at polling stations in Arab towns to once again arrive on election day armed with cameras to film alleged voter fraud. However, Haaretz reported Thursday that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is expected to announce that attempting to pass such sensitive legislation in such a short time frame would not be possible. The ruling party’s surveillance project during last April’s elections was criticized as a form of voter intimidation, a claim seemingly corroborated by the company contracted by Likud to carry out the operation.

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)

Prior to Melcer’s ruling, Liberman’s fellow faction member MK Oded Forer told Channel 12 that he planned on recommending to the election committee that surveillance cameras be installed in ultra-Orthodox community polling stations to “make sure that the ultra-Orthodox don’t cheat on election day.”

Israeli election regulations allow members of separate parties to make up three of the four poll workers at each ballot station. Another individual affiliated with an additional party not already represented can also be present as a designated observer.

During an election committee hearing earlier this month on the matter of the cameras, Melcer referenced the evidence handed over by Likud after the April vote and said that police were still looking into allegations.

Police have so far only opened two official investigations into suspected voter fraud: in Afula and the town of Kisra-Sumei, regarding two polling stations that were not targeted by Likud in its surveillance program.

The Times of Israel obtained records from over 100 polling stations that were found to have irregular voter turnouts relative to the figures at adjacent stations. While a portion of those polling stations were located in Arab towns, they made up less than a third of the total, which also included irregular turnouts in the ultra-Orthodox settlements of Modiin Illit and Beitar Illit, as well as the cities of Petah Tikva, Afula, Netanya and Rosh Ha’ayin.

False messiah

Also during his onstage interview Saturday, Liberman expanded his attack on the more hard-line, religious members of the Yamina party, claiming that Education Minister Rafi Peretz and Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich were modern-day incarnations of Sabbatai Zevi.

Zevi was a 17th-century false messiah in the Ottoman Empire who sent Jewish communities across Europe into an ecstatic frenzy, before ultimately converting to Islam in captivity.

Sabbatai Zevi (1626–76), depicted in an illustration from an early 20th-century Russian encyclopedia of the Jews, was regarded by some Jews in his day as the messiah, until his forced conversion to Islam in the 17th century. (Wikimedia Commons/via JTA)

Liberman recommended that Peretz remove the photo of religious Zionist stalwart Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and replace it with a picture of Zevi.

The Yisrael Beytenu chairman, who has campaigned aggressively against the ultra-Orthodox and national religious political representatives in an effort to push a Likud-Blue and White-Yisrael Beytenu unity government, claimed that Peretz and Smotrich were part of “a messianic bunch of false messengers here that are taking us to an absurd and unbearable reality.”

On Wednesday, Channel 13 broadcast controversial excerpts from lectures at a pre-military academy that Peretz founded, which, it said, encouraged a fear of secularism, called for converting the secular to a religious lifestyle, and advised students to avoid military service in order not to be exposed to secular culture.

Smotrich, meanwhile has repeatedly said he favors implementing religious law in Israel.

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