PM: 'The secrecy of the vote will be strictly preserved'

Cabinet approves PM-pushed camera bill despite AG’s opposition

‘Everyone takes photos,’ Netanyahu argues; ‘every grocery store has cameras, so voting stations can’t?’; Liberman alleges Likud collaboration with Arabs; Knesset to vote Monday

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2L) leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, September 8, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2L) leads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, September 8, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

The cabinet on Sunday unanimously approved proposed legislation pushed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to have voting booths monitored by camera in next week’s elections.

In a rare move, the meeting was attended by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who opposed the bill.

The controversial bill would allow observers from political parties to bring cameras into polling stations. The so-called camera bill is backed by Netanyahu and his ruling Likud party, and has drawn fierce criticism from rival politicians who have accused the party of trying to rush through the legislation ahead of the September 17 vote.

The legislation is also opposed by the Central Elections Committee and Mandelblit, who warned in a legal opinion Friday that it could play havoc with the voting process. The move, Mandelblit said, was “aberrant and flawed” and would undermine the entire election.

Nevertheless, the bill was approved unanimously by the ministers and Likud intends to advance it in a hyper-accelerated procedure between Monday and Wednesday. According to the plan, a special committee to advance the law will be formed Monday and the bill will be brought for the first of three votes in the Knesset plenum needed for it to officially become law. On Tuesday, a full-day debate in the Knesset will be held on the proposal, and on Wednesday it will be brought for second- and third- reading votes in the Knesset plenum.

“Today we are bringing the voting station camera bill for approval,” Netanyahu said at the beginning of the cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office. “The integrity of the elections is one of the pillars of democracy and this is the best way to prevent fraud — installing cameras and enabling supervision by rival parties. Mutual supervision by all parties is the essence of transparency in democracy and one of the basics in preserving the rule of law.”

“The proposed law says the cameras will record what happens in the voting hall but not behind the voting booth,” Netanyahu said. “The secrecy of the vote will be strictly preserved. In 2013, judge Elyakim Rubinstein said there is a need to think about cameras. [CEC head] Justice [Hanan] Melcer said regarding the last elections that fraud was a real problem. Well, problems need to be solved, and problems with elections need to be solved before the elections.

A hidden camera allegedly sneaked into a polling station in an Arab town by a Likud observer during parliamentary elections on April 9, 2019. (Courtesy Hadash-Ta’al)

“There is no need for special preparation, training or equipment,” he said. “Any observer can film with their cellphone camera. It happens all around us, everyone takes photos, everything is in the Story,” Netanyahu said, referring to a posting mechanism for photos on social media platforms. “Every grocery store has cameras, so voting stations can’t?”

A cabinet source told The Times of Israel that during the part of the cabinet meeting that was closed to the press, Mandelblit said: “The chairman of the Central Elections Committee says it will cause irregularities on Election Day — so I’m against the law. I’m in favor of cameras but it needs to be done properly.”

The legislation was advanced after the election committee late last month banned political parties from arming polling station representatives with cameras, saying the law did not enable such practices.

But passage of the bill, in time to be implemented on September 17, is viewed as unlikely by commentators. And even if it passes, the government will likely find it difficult to defend a law that the attorney general vehemently opposes if and when petitions are filed against it at the High Court of Justice.

Many of Netanyahu’s rivals have vowed to oppose the legislation and obstruct the Monday votes by filibustering, but Yisrael Beytenu party chief Avigdor Liberman — who has become the premier’s nemesis since refusing to join his coalition after the April elections — said Sunday that he would be supporting it.

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor LIberman touring the West Bank settlement-city of Ma’ale Adumim on September 8, 2019. (Courtesy)

However, Liberman said the bill nevertheless had “no chance” of passing, and accused Netanyahu of collaborating with Arab politicians on the matter, without providing evidence.

“Of course, for Netanyahu the story with the cameras is a replacement for ‘The Arabs are heading to the polling stations in droves,'” Liberman said, referring to a campaign video the premier released on the day of the 2015 elections, widely perceived as inciting against Arab Israelis.

“Like he, back then, ran to apologize to those Arabs, it is clear that in this case there is absolute coordination between the Joint List [alliance of Arab parties] and Likud,” Liberman said during a tour of the West Bank settlement-city of Ma’ale Adumim. “Those two parties have it in their interest to inflame the tensions and constantly quarrel over the camera issue.”

During the April 9 elections, Netanyahu’s Likud party equipped some 1,200 polling officials working at ballot stations in Arab population centers with hidden body cameras to prevent what the party claims is rampant fraud in the community.

Likud asserted last week that without fraudulent votes in April, one of the country’s Arab parties, Ra’am-Balad, would not have passed the minimum threshold of 3.25 percent of the vote for entry into the Knesset, equivalent to four seats in parliament. It is now warning the same will happen again if cameras at polling stations are not permitted.

Voting booth in Iksal, an Arab town near Nazareth, on April 9, 2019. (Adam Rasgon/Times of Israel)

The party’s claims are dubious and have not been substantiated by evidence. A senior Likud official speaking to the Haaretz newspaper anonymously said the claims of a stolen election were “merely speculation. This isn’t a scenario anyone thinks has much basis.”

On Friday, Netanyahu accused his political rivals of opposing the bill because they “want to steal the election.”

Speaking to reporters before departing from London to Israel, the premier said: “It is not a coincidence that Benny Gantz and [Blue and White’s Yair] Lapid oppose cameras, because they want the election to be stolen.”

On Saturday, former prime minister Ehud Barak, who is running in the upcoming elections with the left-wing Democratic Camp alliance, suggested Netanyahu could be seeking a scrap with Mandelblit as a pretext for firing him.

Mandelblit has recommended Netanyahu be charged with fraud and breach of trust in three separate corruption cases, as well as bribery in one of them. Lawyers for the premier, who denies any wrongdoing, are set to attend a pre-indictment hearing with Mandelblit on October 2-3, just weeks after the election.

“The camera bill is a warning sign to all of us. Whether it is an effort to scare voters, whether it is to create a kernel [of ostensible evidence] to the claim that the elections were fraudulent in order to cast doubt on their legitimacy and not recognize their results, or whether it is preparing the basis for the firing of the attorney general, the danger is chaos and anarchy after the elections,” Barak wrote on Facebook, summarizing remarks he made at a cultural event in Holon.

Barak called on Israelis to be prepared to stop this “destructive” bill, “whose meaning is the end of democracy.”

Gabi Ashkenazi, one of the leaders of the Blue and White political alliance, speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv on March 18, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Also speaking at the event, Blue and White MK Gabi Ashkenazi claimed he has heard of efforts by unspecified parties to enlist female election observers to check under the veils of Muslim women.

“This is incomprehensible,” he said.

Ashkenazi alleged the proposed camera bill was an effort to distract from the graft accusations against Netanyahu and said that the premier was reprising a controversial get-out-the-vote appeal he made on election day in 2015.

“Do you remember [Netanyahu’s claim that] the Arabs are flocking [to the polls]? Now it’s the Arabs are stealing the elections,” Ashkenazi said.

Likud was unable to form a ruling majority in negotiations after the last election, being only able to muster a total of 60 seats with coalition partners, one short of the majority needed in the 120-seat Knesset. Netanyahu then dissolved parliament and called fresh elections.

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