Responding to Sa’ar petition, Netanyahu backs cameras in Likud polling stations

But PM notes position does not change his view that party’s internal court can dispute an earlier elections committee decision to nix installing surveillance systems

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at an event opening the Brazilian Trade and Investment Promotion Agency in Jerusalem, December 15, 2019.  (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at an event opening the Brazilian Trade and Investment Promotion Agency in Jerusalem, December 15, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday said he supports placing cameras in Likud polling stations for the upcoming leadership primary to prevent voting fraud, after his party rival cited the premier, who made the claim in the previous national election, and pushed for the devices to be allowed.

Likud lawmaker Gideon Sa’ar, who is challenging Netanyahu for party leadership in the December 26 vote, had demanded that cameras be placed at polling stations to foil cheating, referring to Netanyahu’s own support for recording devices in the September general election as justification.

Sa’ar appealed to Likud’s internal court, asking that it order the installation of cameras, after the party’s internal elections committee rejected his request a day earlier to record the voting and counting process with video cameras.

“In principle, the position of the prime minister is that cameras help to protect purity of the election process and ensure trust in the results of the ballot by the voting public, this without impacting the secrecy of the vote,” a letter on behalf of Netanyahu told Likud’s internal court early Tuesday evening.

But the prime minister noted that his support for cameras doesn’t detract from his opinion that the internal court cannot overturn Likud’s elections committee decision against using the devices, Channel 13 television news reported.

In his appeal, Sa’ar noted that Netanyahu himself had led the party’s charge ahead of the September 17 vote to have cameras placed in polling stations where the premier claimed fraud was suspected, especially in Arab-majority areas.

Critics described the campaign as a transparent attempt to depress voter turnout in Arab communities.

Likud parliament member Gideon Sa’ar speaks attends a conference of the International Insitute for Strategic Leadership Dialogue, at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, December 15, 2019. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

During April’s national elections, Likud activists brought hidden bodycams into 1,200 stations in Arab areas. The political marketing firm that masterminded the operation then boasted on Facebook that the move had helped dampen Arab turnout, which had indeed declined in the April race. Likud itself denied that was the reason for the cameras, and the firm quickly deleted the post.

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)

The Knesset’s Central Elections Committee, charged by law with managing Israel’s parliamentary elections, barred Likud from taking similar action in the September election, leading Netanyahu to attempt unsuccessfully to push a bill through the Knesset that would allow party observers to bring cameras into polling stations.

The effort was widely perceived as part of Likud’s campaign strategy targeting right-wing fears of Arab influence, with Netanyahu warning throughout the campaigns ahead of the two previous national votes that anti-Zionist Arab political factions were poised, through their purported influence over Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, to gain control of Israel’s government.

However, the campaign appeared to backfire, according to analysts and Arab leaders. Overall Arab turnout rose sharply between April and September, by almost one-fifth, to 59.1% of the community’s eligible voters, a figure still 10 points short of the 69% overall turnout. The percentage of Arab voters who voted for Arab-majority parties also rose, from an estimated 71% in April to 81% in September — though some argued this was due to the Arab factions’ decision to join together in a single Knesset slate between the two votes.

Illustrative: Likud supporters outside the Ashdod Likud branch during a primaries vote on February 5, 2019. (Flash90)

Sa’ar’s Tuesday appeal draws its inspiration from the same Likud campaign, arguing that the use of cameras in the primary voting stations would help ensure “fair, clean and democratic elections, while protecting the right to a secret ballot.” No filming would take place inside the voting booth, the appeal assured.

His petition went on to quote the prime minister himself. “Only those who want to steal elections are opposed to placing cameras” in polling stations, Netanyahu said on September 6 as he pushed legislation to permit their use. He’d declared a day earlier: “There are cameras in every supermarket and health clinic. We want them in polling stations too.”

And two days later, on September 8, Netanyahu said: “I understand why [Blue and White leaders Yair] Lapid and Gantz and [Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor] Liberman agree with the Arab Joint List against using cameras to supervise the voting stations — to allow for fraud and to steal the election.”

The quotes were cited in the appeal, which also pointed to the short timetable — just nine days remain to the primary vote — in asking Likud’s internal court to issue its response promptly.

The dueling over cameras came alongside claims by backers of Sa’ar that thousands of voters had been purged from the party’s member list ahead of the primary.

According to Channel 12 news, most of those whose names disappeared from the list were associated with the New Likudniks, an intraparty organization. The New Likudniks have been accused by allies of Netanyahu of seeking to move the party leftwards and push out the prime minister as Likud leader.

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