Likud MK admits targeting Arabs with camera bill wasn’t a good idea

Miki Zohar says legislation blasted as racist backfired on Likud by energizing Arab voters; congratulates Liberman on being the ‘only winner’ of the elections

Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with MK Miki Zohar during a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset, January 25, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, speaks with MK Miki Zohar during a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset, January 25, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Likud MK Miki Zohar, a staunch ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, acknowledged Wednesday that the controversial camera bill that his party aggressively pushed in recent weeks ended up hurting it on election day.

“That didn’t serve us, it hurt us. It woke up the Arab sector, which in turn came out to the polls, while also lulling right-wing voters into complacency and many of them remained at home,” Zohar told the Walla news site.

Netanyahu’s Likud party advocated for legislation opposed by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit that would have allowed party operatives to film inside polling stations. It based the necessity for the bill on the unproven claim of rampant voter fraud among Arabs. The bill failed at both the committee stage and in the Knesset plenum, critically deprived of a majority by the opposition of Yisrael Beytenu.

In the middle of election day, the party leaked to Channel 13 that it had installed “facial recognition” cameras outside Arab polling stations in what many analysts concluded was an attempt to intimidate Arab voters.

The predominantly Arab Joint List, according to unofficial results tallied after over 90 percent of the vote had been counted Wednesday morning, won 12 seats, up from the 10 its various factions currently hold.

The results were almost a complete reversal from fears of low voter turnout in Arab-majority cities.

Joint List candidates celebrating the results of Channel 13’s exit poll which initially projected the party would win 13 seats in the Knesset. (Adam Rasgon/Times of Israel)

Speaking to the Kan public broadcaster, Zohar said there was “only one winner” in the elections — Avigdor Liberman, the leader of the secularist right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party, who refused to join a Netanyahu government after the April elections due to disagreements with the premier’s ultra-Orthodox allies, helping trigger Tuesday’s vote.

Exit polls and early results showed a deadlock between Netanyahu’s Likud and centrist rival Blue and White, with neither party having a clear path to forming a government with natural allies.

With coalition wangling set to get underway, the parties will likely need to reach across the aisle or pursue a unity government, though Blue and White can also possibly pull support from the Arab parties for a mandate to begin coalition negotiations.

Liberman is now seen as the kingmaker.

“Hats off,” Zohar said. “Liberman will determine whether a government will be formed, what it looks like and who is included in it.”

Photo composition (L to R): Blue and White chief Benny Gantz, Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Yonatan Sindel, Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

He said he was “heartened” by the fact that a government without Likud looks extremely unlikely, asserting that his party wouldn’t join any coalition if Netanyahu could not remain prime minister.

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh expressed a greater degree of satisfaction. “We feel good that [Netanyahu] cannot form a government,” Odeh stated early Wednesday, speaking to a gaggle of activists and journalists at an Arabic-language radio station headquarters in Nazareth.

Odeh said Netanyahu’s repeated attacks had boosted Arab turnout and hurt himself in the end. “There’s a heavy price to pay for incitement,” he said.

Aaed Kayel, the Joint List’s campaign manager, said Netanyahu’s statements had motivated Arab Israelis to vote in high numbers.

“They made people want to go to vote,” he said. “While he thought that making those remarks convinced more of his supporters to vote, they actually helped us and encouraged our voters to go to the polls.”

Netanyahu has been accused of centering his campaigns on suppressing the Arab vote, “warning” supporters that they needed to counterbalance high turnout in Arab areas.

“The era of Benjamin Netanyahu has come to a close,” Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi said from the stage in Nazareth, emphasizing that “the end of Netanyahu means ‘The Deal of the Century’ has fallen.”

“The Deal of the Century” is derogatory term used to refer to the Trump administration’s peace plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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 the previous elections in April, fewer than half of Arab voters cast ballots, according to a report by the Israel Democracy Institute, which put Arab turnout in that vote at 49.2%. In contrast, some 63.5% of Arab Israelis cast ballots in the March 2015 ballot, the report said.

In addition to claiming Arabs were voting in high numbers on Tuesday, Netanyahu recently accused anyone who opposed the bill his party proposed to place cameras in voting booths, with a focus on Arab towns, of seeking stealing the elections. Also, a chatbot operated by Netanyahu’s Facebook page said Arabs “want to destroy us all – women, children and men.”

Netanyahu later denied he wrote the statement on his Facebook page, blaming it on a campaign staffer.

In 2015, Netanyahu also courted controversy on election day when he published a video urging right-wingers to vote because Arab Israelis were “flocking” to the polls.

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