An Arab Israeli man prepares to vote in Israel's parliamentary elections on April 9, 2019, at a school-turned-polling station in the northern Israeli town of Taibe. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
Ahmad Gharabli/AFP, shows an Arab Israeli man preparing to vote in Israel's parliamentary elections on April 9, 2019 at a school-turned-polling station in the northern Israeli town of Taibe
TOI investigates'The operation became something of a secret weapon for us'

How Likud weaponized cameras in Arab polling stations and intends to do so again

Election czar to rule on ‘Operation Moral Standards’ as PM’s party bids to expand scheme, sending youths to ‘monitor’ Arab balloting despite accusations of racism, deterring voters

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

Ahmad Gharabli/AFP, shows an Arab Israeli man preparing to vote in Israel's parliamentary elections on April 9, 2019 at a school-turned-polling station in the northern Israeli town of Taibe

Several weeks before the April 9 Knesset elections, Yuval Katz was forwarded a vaguely worded message on WhatsApp describing an opportunity for “easy work while earning good money” on the day of the national vote.

The attached link led him to a Google Form that cryptically explained the job entailed providing assistance to poll workers stationed in Arab towns. It said that “an extra little detail” regarding the position would be shared at a briefing, four days before the election, with Likud minister Yoav Gallant. In between jobs at the time and looking for an opportunity to make a quick shekel, the 26-year-old signed up.

At the briefing, the operation’s organizers revealed to Katz and the 40 other young adults hired as “field coordinators” that they would each be responsible for overseeing roughly 30 younger hires who would be armed with hidden cameras, in order to document alleged voter fraud at Arab community polling stations.

They were warned of some “uncomfortable situations” that could arise if any of the hidden cameras were to be spotted.

But this was a far cry from the reality in which Katz and nearly every one of the young polling officials for whom he was responsible found themselves almost immediately after polls opened.

An Israeli man arrives at a polling station to vote in Israel’s parliamentary elections on April 9, 2019 in the northern Arab Israeli town of Taibe. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Throughout election day, the freshman field coordinator fielded calls from panicked teenagers, unprepared for the backlash as a result of their participation in the targeted surveillance operation. The directive from above was to keep them at the ballot stations, no matter what. But fearing for their safety, several of the teenagers were begging Katz to extract them.

Almost as quickly as the poll watchers began getting burned, the media blew the lid off the operation. Outrage over the cameras was widespread, but the clandestine project funded by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s own party — and under his close supervision — turned out to be legal enough to receive a stamp of approval later in the day from the Central Elections Committee.

Police briefly barred the camera-wielding young polling officials from ballot stations as the election committee chairman Hanan Melcer weighed his decision, but the Supreme Court justice ultimately green-lighted the use of such devices in cases where there was “considerable fear” of voter fraud. However, in not specifying what constituted a “considerable fear,” Melcer left it for Likud poll officials to decide for themselves.

Critics cited the cameras as contributing to a record-low Arab turnout nationwide, though some members of the Arab community themselves disputed that claim. Perhaps because the project was deemed to fall within the confines of the law, the story has seen only limited follow-up coverage in the press.

But details of the campaign’s execution reveal just how far the Likud party was willing to go in order to prevent what it claims to be rampant voter fraud in the Arab sector — the same constituency that, on the previous election day in 2015, Netanyahu notoriously warned was “heading to the polls in droves.” Then, Arab voters’ participation in the democratic process was considered a threat. This time, it was also being branded as potentially illegal.

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)

Once the voting was completed on April 9, Likud transferred to the election authorities hundreds of recordings from those hidden cameras, which it said proved the extent of cheating that took place in Arab towns. But as far as police were concerned, the election passed with barely more than a blip and the evidence submitted was nothing more than anecdotal.

Now, delighted by April’s operation and unfazed by criticism, Likud is once again preparing to carry out the operation in the coming September election, but this time on an even greater scale. The Central Election Committee was meeting Thursday to discuss whether it will change its position on the cameras, but operation organizers who spoke to The Times of Israel said they were confident they’d be able to march into the Arab polling stations, cameras in hand, once again.

Operation Moral Standards

“Field coordinator” Katz — who asked to be identified using a pseudonym to protect his privacy — admitted he initially felt uncomfortable with the nature of the operation, but said he was reassured upon learning of the involvement of Gallant, a former IDF general who had served for several years as housing minister.

“If a minister is going to be there, then apparently it’s legitimate,” he recalled thinking to himself ahead of the pre-election get-together.

The briefing was kicked off with short speeches by the organizers of “Operation Moral Standards” from the Kaizler-Inbar communications firm. Sagi Kaizler and Ofer Inbar had been involved in a nearly identical project during the 2015 elections — also with funding and cooperation from the Likud party — but they chose to fly under the radar then.

“The goal is very simple. To prevent voter fraud,” said a Likud official involved in the project who subsequently spoke to The Times of Israel on the condition of anonymity. He explained the motivation for April’s operation and September’s larger repeat.

“We noticed over the years that there were certain towns where turnout was between 90 and 100 percent, and that was not consistent with all the calls we’ve been hearing in the Arab population to boycott the elections,” this organizer said, though he did not provide any statistical examples to support his thesis.

Some Arab Israeli activists and media personalities have called on members of their communities to boycott the elections in recent years, but turnout in that community hasn’t been above 80% since 1965 and has only averaged at 55.8% in the last five elections, according to Israel Democracy Institute figures.

Nonetheless, intent on stomping out the “unchecked phenomenon,” the Likud official explained that Kaizler-Inbar recruited some 1,200 activists from national-religious yeshivas ahead of April’s vote, armed them with hidden body cameras, and deployed them as polling committee representatives in Arab towns across the country.

Israeli election regulations allow members of separate parties to make up three of the four poll workers at each ballot station. A fifth or sixth individual affiliated with an additional party can also be present as a designated observer.

Israeli Arabs hold a Palestinian flag during a protest against the Jewish nation bill in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

The number of polling officials that each party receives is proportional to the amount of seats they earned in the last election, giving Likud the largest amount of representatives in April. The vast majority of poll workers recruited by Kaizler-Inbar went on to serve on behalf of the Likud, but Netanyahu’s party also cut deals with other right-wing factions, which “loaned out” their poll workers and observers for the cause.

The Likud official claimed that the very placement of Jewish polling committee representatives in Arab towns prevented massive fraud from taking place in both the low-profile 2015 operation, and the bigger one in April. In 2015, he claimed, “We determined from our numbers that we thwarted fraud equivalent to 3 Knesset seats-worth (roughly 108,000 votes).” He did not provide the internal data proving the determination and later clarified that it was based on anecdotal evidence.

Much as he did in the briefing with the field organizers, the Likud official went on to detail the different types of fraud that, he said, are prone to take place on election day. The most substantial kind, he said, occurs after the voting is done and the polling stations close.

“Let’s say the polling committee notices that only 50% of the residents voted. They then can make deals where they agree to give a certain percentage of extra votes to the Likud, for example, in exchange for an additional percentage to the Joint (Arab) List,” he explained matter-of-factly.

Accordingly, he said, the purpose of the cameras was to monitor the behavior of the other polling committee members rather than the voters themselves. Those armed with cameras did not go behind the voting booths, where voters put their voting slips into their envelopes, and remained at the check-in tables throughout the entire day, the Likud official added.

The pre-election briefing culminated with an address from Gallant, who stressed to the field organizers the importance of the task at hand. “He didn’t talk about being against the Arabs, but really framed a values-based discussion that highlighted the importance of having a fair election,” Katz recalled.

Likud Minsiter Yoav Gallant (R) during a visit to Tel Aviv’s Hatikva Market, March 28, 2019. (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)

Where the 26-year-old field coordinator felt the organizers crossed a line was when a question was raised regarding where the polling officials themselves would vote.

Election regulations require citizens to vote in their town of origin. However, those activists given the position of poll watcher would not be able to do so, given the organizers’ expectation that they remain present at their respective polling stations in Arab towns for the entire day.

Katz said one of the organizers told them that the poll watchers would be able to vote at any station so long as they sign a form stating that they are not able to vote anywhere else. These declarations are intended to be reserved for handicapped individuals, but “they told us that nobody ever checks this.”

“They’re talking about moral standards while illegally employing activists on election day,” Katz lamented.

The Likud official denied that accusation.

Planned chaos

Katz said that he expected to be able to spend his day at a cafe somewhere in the northern region, communicating via telephone with the 30 nearby polling officials for whom he was responsible and driving to the various stations when issues arose.

“What happened in practice was that [Arab polling officials] started noticing the cameras just an hour after voting began, and [the young activists] started receiving threats,” Katz recalled.

At 10:28 a.m., the Ynet news site published exclusive video footage of an Arab local catching a Likud polling official with a hidden camera.

Critics have speculated that someone from Kaizler-Inbar leaked the footage to the press in an effort to create buzz surrounding its placement of cameras in Arab towns, thereby discouraging the singled-out population from heading to the polls. Arab voters concerned with their peers knowing about their participation in the election process in light of growing boycott calls now realized that they would be filmed entering a polling station.

Asked if he had been behind the Ynet story, one of the organizers laughed. “I’m not going to answer that. Infer from that whatever you like.”

Regardless, the additional publicity further complicated the job for Katz.

He began getting frantic calls from the 18 and 19-year-old polling officials he was overseeing, pleading for help.

“I tried calming them down and reminded them that everything they were doing was legal,” he said.

Current election regulations contain no clause barring cameras from polling stations, and provisions regarding privacy protections are made in reference to the citizens behind the voting booth, not the other polling officials at the check-in table.

The order from above was that under no circumstance should the young polling officials leave the stations, but Katz said he decided early on to abandon that mission.

“The operation wasn’t in line with my political agenda, so my only concern became about ensuring the safety of those kids.”

He said that the operation organizers placed him “in an impossible situation,” adding that many of the teenage polling officials had not been briefed ahead of time regarding what they were getting themselves into.

“They vaguely told us it was possible that some of the activists would find themselves in uncomfortable situations… but it wasn’t clear that this was going to happen to every single one of them,” Katz said.

Police officers were called by Arab community leaders and urged to remove the Likud polling officials and their cameras from dozens of polling stations. Katz was called to several in order to intervene on behalf of some of those teenagers. In three other instances, polling officials from his team themselves asked to be removed from the stations. The field coordinator said he complied with the teens’ requests.

A family votes during elections in a predominantly Bedouin city of Rahat on April 9, 2019. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)

Trend or anecdotal evidence?

Meanwhile, late on the morning of election day, the Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am-Balad Arab parties submitted complaints to the Central Elections Committee demanding that the cameras be removed from the polling stations.

By 12:30, Melcer handed down a ruling — one that the Likud official who spoke with The Times of Israel said placed a “seal of approval on the entire project.”

Melcer said the cameras could be used during voting hours “only in cases in which there is a fear of substantial violation of the integrity of the elections… such as threats made against members of the polling committees, proposals of bribery or fear of violence during the election day.”

Asked subsequently whether each individual was supposed to be able to determine on their own what constitutes a “fear of substantial violation of the integrity of the elections,” a Central Elections Committee spokesman declined to respond and asserted that the ruling was clear.

“Each person could decide on their own when there’s such a fear. We think that there constantly is one,” said one of the Operation Moral Standards organizers.

Melcer also green-lighted audio recording during all hours of election day, and approved the use of video cameras during the ballot count so long as the other members of the polling committee were notified that they were being filmed.

Justice Hanan Melcer, chairman of the Central Elections Committee. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Katz cited Melcer’s rulings in his defense of Operation Moral Standards, despite his uneasiness with the “impossible situation” that its organizers had placed him in.

“I understand it was portrayed to the public as some sort of attempt to prevent Arabs from voting, but from what I saw throughout the day, they really cheated quite a bit,” Katz said. He said he recalled attempts by voters to twice arrive at the same polling station with different IDs; a polling official who gave voters two envelopes each to submit their ballots; and bribery offers made to the Likud polling officials at the end of the day during the ballot count.

“This might not have added up to that many… but you could tell that they were up to something, always trying to pull you out of room so they could have a more free hand to operate,” Katz recalled.

In the northern Arab village of Nahaf, Likud polling official Avia Katan said an individual at the voting station offered him and another committee member coffee. While Katan declined the drink, his colleague finished the cup only to notice a pair of pills at the bottom. The latter member quickly began to feel sick and rushed to the bathroom. Katan poured out the coffee he was offered and found a pair of pills at the bottom as well.

The 24-year-old called police who arrived at the scene, removed the suspect from the polling station and gathered the evidence.

A police spokeswoman confirmed that an investigation had been opened after it was confirmed that the pills were diarrhea-inducing. She said authorities were still deliberating whether or not to indict the suspect.

Katan later said that despite a brief period during which he was chewed out by the other polling officials for bringing a hidden camera, the experience was worthwhile and pleasant.

“I got paid NIS 1,200 ($344) and helped the right ensure its victory,” he said proudly.

But for Muhammad Diab, who served on a polling committee in the nearby village of Tamra, the only time he heard about voter fraud was in the news.

“They’re always talking about the fact that there is voter fraud in our town, but I’ve never seen it. Who’s dumb enough to risk going to jail for the NIS 1,200 salary they give us?” he asked.

Mohammed Diab, an election observer at the Ibn Sina School in Tamra on April 9. 2019. (Adam Rasgon/Times of Israel)

“I understand that the law allows the cameras but what bothers me is that they chose only to target us” in the Arab sector, Diab continued. “I made sure the [Likud] polling official had a kosher meal to eat and he still assumes I’m there to cheat.”

Asked if he sympathized with critics uncomfortable about the targeted nature of the operation, the Likud official said, “of course I understand them.”

“What we’d like to see is legislation requiring the installation of cameras in every polling station, not just those in Arab towns,” he said.

The Likud official fingered Israel’s ultra-Orthodox citizens as another sector in need of monitoring at their polling stations.

However, he explained that until a law is passed regulating polling station surveillance, Likud is choosing to use its limited resources in targeting fraud benefiting Arab parties as opposed to those that vote for factions that Netanyahu considers to be his “natural coalition partners.”

Defining success

Likud officials who spoke with The Times of Israel for this article said the party, and chiefly the prime minister, were more than pleased with the job done by Kaizler-Inbar.

An operation organizer said that while Netanyahu did not initiate the project, he quickly latched on to it and was in touch with those involved throughout, both in 2015 and now.

Moments after the premier got word of the election results late in the evening on April 9, he contacted those involved in the Likud campaign backstage at Tel Aviv’s Kvuzat Shlomo event hall to thank them for their work. Kaizler and another colleague were among those invited to Likud’s victory gathering late that night and they managed to snap a picture with Netanyahu and his wife Sara.

That picture was widely shared the next day when Kaizler-Inbar attached it to a Facebook post in which the PR firm proudly took responsibility for “implanting” cameras that helped drop Arab turnout to below 50%. (The Israel Democracy Institute calculated Arab turnout in April to have been 49.2% compared to the national rate of 68.5%. In the 2015 election, those figures were 63.8% and 68.5%, respectively)

(Top R) Sagi Kaizler and Gadi De’ee pose for a photo with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (bottom L) and his wife Sara after election results announced on April 9, 2019. (Kaizler-Inbar))

“Shhh … Don’t tell anyone. It was us. Did you see the articles in the media that caused outrage on election day? The ones about the cameras planted at polling stations in the Arab sector and prevented thousands of forged votes?” the PR firm’s post began.

“So yes, we are ‘guilty’ of having been behind this operation.”

“After a long period of preparation, the work of an incredible logistics team and a deep and close partnership with the best people of the Likud, we managed to carry out a campaign that was a decisive contributing factor in one of the most important achievements of the right-wing camp: Moral standards in the Arab sector.”

“And thanks to the fact that our observers were placed in every Arab polling station, voter turnout dropped below 50% — the lowest seen in recent years!” the firm boasted.

The post is cited in the various petitions that were submitted to the Central Elections Committee ahead of Thursday’s meeting against allowing such an operation in the September 17 election.

International norms

Among those who have tried to taken legal action against International Moral Standards has been the Adalah rights group. Sawsan Zaher, an attorney at the left-wing NGO, argued that the Kaizler-Inbar Facebook post proved that the organizers were not interested in ensuring a fair election, but rather in “inciting against the Arab public.”

Moreover, Zaher asserted that the hidden cameras violated election regulations that require the voting process to be carried out “discreetly.”

Evidently Melcer felt differently when he ruled to conditionally allow the use of the recording devices in April.

While filming in polling stations is barred in many Western democracies, including Canada and Australia, there are exceptions providing the decision of the Central Elections Committee’s chairman with a degree of precedent.

Election law in the UK does not explicitly bar the use of cameras, leading some law experts there to argue that there is room for filming mishaps that occur with voting machines so that they can be properly reported.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to his supporters after polls for Israel’s general elections closed in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, April 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Election regulations in the vast majority of states in the US, including Florida, Nevada and Texas, explicitly outlaw the use of cameras in polling stations, but a handful of other US states — such as Louisiana — allow authorized poll watchers to film in the polling station so long as this does not disrupt the electoral process.

Ahead of the 2016 presidential election, pro-Trump neo-Nazi leader Andrew Anglin, along with activists from the alt-right website “the Right Stuff,” announced plans to install hidden cameras at ballot stations in Philadelphia in what they said was an effort to keep black voters away from the polls. News of their plan spread quickly, sparking national outrage and even a letter from Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey urging the Justice Department to take action. Less than 24 hours later, the organizers walked back their plan and insisted that they hadn’t actually intended to carry it out.

The Times of Israel found no reported example of targeted election day surveillance programs carried out by a particular party in the US in recent decades.

Moral Standards 2.0

Evidently pleased with the work of Kaizler-Inbar, Likud has purchased its services for this coming September, doubling the firm’s budget to roughly NIS 2 million ($570,000).

An organizer of the operation said that the additional funds would go toward stationing additional poll watchers at “more problematic locations.”

Likud MK David Bitan, who served as one of Melcer’s deputies on the Central Elections Committee while also closely overseeing Moral Standards last April, said that the “operation had succeeded.”

Meretz lawmaker Issawi Frej, left, addressing Likud MK David Bitan, right, outside the meeting of the Central Elections Committee in the Knesset on March 6, 2019 concerning the Knesset bid of the extremist Otzma Yehudit party. Meretz chair MK Tamar Zandberg is center. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

As for the material that the Likud poll watchers gathered in April, Bitan said it had all been submitted to the Central Elections Committee. An operation organizer said it included more than 400 pieces of evidence, mainly audio recordings and a small amount of video footage.

The organizer sent four of those audio recordings to The Times of Israel, saying they were taken from polling stations in the northern towns of Umm al-Fahm and Arraba. In each, local poll officials can be heard trying to convince their Likud counterparts to add additional ballots to various parties’ totals during the counting.

Ultimately though, police have only opened investigations on suspicions of voter fraud in two polling stations — one in the city of Afula and another in the Druze town of Kisra-Sumei. Neither polling station was targeted by Likud in its surveillance program.

Bitan said that Moral Standards activists had found proof of considerable voter fraud at 58 polling stations.

Asked how he could explain the discrepancy between the number of police probes opened and the quantity of damning evidence Kaizler-Inbar claimed to have gathered, a Likud official responded, “It’s a question of priorities. I’m more concerned with getting legislation passed requiring cameras in all polling stations.”

The official added that in the wake of its election day efforts, Likud had included a clause in the most recent coalition negotiations requiring parties to commit to passing election reform legislation in the next government. While Netanyahu did not manage to form a coalition after the April vote, the official said that the same clause would be included in the next round of negotiations if they are led by the premier’s party.

The Likud official said he was confident that Moral Standards will once again play a role in ensuring another Netanyahu victory.

Looking to avoid a repeat of the scenes in April during which police initially decided to remove dozens of Likud polling officials from ballot stations on suspicion that they were infringing on public order, an operation organizer said that Bitan has asked Melcer to detail in writing what the camera-armed poll watchers can and can’t do this time around. He has also asked the committee chair to deploy police officers at the “more problematic” polling stations to protect the camera-armed Likud representatives, this organizer said.

By contrast, several requests have been submitted by left-wing parties to Melcer in recent weeks, demanding that he ban the cameras altogether.

An Israeli woman votes during elections in a predominantly Bedouin city of Rahat on April 9, 2019. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)

That is why he scheduled Thursday’s hearing, with his decision set to be handed down soon after.

Hours before the session, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit submitted his opinion for Melcer to weigh. Appearing to contradict or at least undermine Melcer’s April election day ruling, Mandelblit warned that the use of cameras in polling stations could, in certain cases, constitute an interference in the election process — itself a criminal offense.

Nonetheless, the Likud official involved in the planning of Operation Moral Standards said that with Bitan on the election committee alongside Melcer, he was not overly concerned about the possibility of the cameras being banned altogether.

“These cameras kind of became our secret weapon in the elections, even though they’re not that secret anymore,” he said.

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