On election day, lots of ‘gevalt,’ but little physical violence

On election day, lots of ‘gevalt,’ but little physical violence

Parties across political spectrum try to mobilize support by claiming low voter turnout for themselves and high voter turnout for their rivals

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to commuters in front of the public bathrooms at the Jerusalem Central Bus Station, September 17, 2019. (Screen capture: Facebook Live)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking to commuters in front of the public bathrooms at the Jerusalem Central Bus Station, September 17, 2019. (Screen capture: Facebook Live)

If there’s one word that sums up the election campaign that is coming to an end Tuesday night, it’s gevalt. The Yiddish term literally means violence, but in Israel’s political lexicon it is an exclamation by heads of parties who, genuinely or not, are claiming their party is facing defeat.

Depending on the party, gevalt can mean, “Help, we will not get the largest number of Knesset seats” or “We will fall under the electoral threshold and disappear altogether.” But it is always an effort to galvanize people who were thinking of staying home — possibly because they think their party or political camp does not depend on their vote — to cast a ballot.

There was a lot of gevalt in this campaign, as well as some flagrant violations by none other than the prime minister, but thankfully very little real violence.

Earlier this month, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz expressed worry over possible riots that could break out in the wake of the Likud party’s failed legislative bid to allow party reps to bring cameras into polling stations.

During an onstage interview co-sponsored by The Times of Israel and the Tel Aviv International Salon, Gantz urged voters to “reject any kind of violence that you see [on election day] … because I’m afraid that not everybody thinks like me, [including] Israel’s leader.”

His concern proved largely unfounded, as the elections proceeded as usual — at least as of the time of publication — with only one notable minor altercation disturbing the otherwise peaceful atmosphere.

According to Likud, one party activist, who was only identified as Itzik, was attacked by a woman the party identified as a supporter of Blue and White, even though a video of the incident provided no indication of her political affiliation. Likud said it filed a police complaint about the attack.

While the literal violence was limited in scope, the figurative gevalt was ubiquitous.

In a bid to mobilize potential voters, political leaders of all stripes took to social media on Tuesday to lament that their rivals were doing great while they were failing miserably at the polls.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — the uncontested guru of gevalt, warning of an imminent loss due to a low voter turnout for the third election in a row — on Tuesday morning convened an “emergency meeting” of senior Likud officials to hash out the party’s response to an alleged rush on the polls by “Arabs and leftists.”

Blue and White also trafficked in doomsday predictions, cautioning supporters that there was an “emergency for our democracy.”

Blue and White party MK Yair Lapid speaks to the media after casting his ballot at a voting station in Tel Aviv on September 17, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Further to the left, Amir Peretz’s Labor and the Democratic Camp of Nitzan Horowitz, Stav Shaffir and Ehud Barak issued similar messages of looming disaster (those two slates were indeed polled dangerously close to the electoral threshold.)

The fact that there was no significant violence did not mean that there were not plenty of other infractions and irregularities, some of which will likely occupy the Central Elections Committee, and possibly law enforcement agencies, after the polls close at 10 p.m.

Like on every election day, there were reports of small-scale fraud. Several polling stations had to be closed temporarily, for various reasons, and here and there suspicions of attempted voter fraud — such as forged voting slips — were investigated. None of this will likely have a serious impact.

Curiously, some of the more flagrant offenses were committed by Netanyahu himself. His Facebook chatbot — which engages visitors to the prime minister’s Facebook page — had shared new public opinion surveys, which is illegal.

In response, Facebook suspended the bot for several hours. “Our policy explicitly states that developers are required to obey all laws applicable in the country where their application is accessible. Therefore we’ve suspended the [Netanyahu] bot’s activity, in light of the violation of local law, until the close of the polls,” the social media giant said in a statement.

Netanyahu also appeared to brazenly disregard a law prohibiting politicians to campaign during media interviews on Election Day, when he called on voters to support his party in interviews to two radio stations.

The Likud chairman and his aides know, of course, that what they were doing is illegal, but likely reasoned that the fine they will be asked to pay later is well worth the potential benefit they hope to reap from their actions — securing him a record fifth term as prime minister, along with immunity from prosecution.

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