In a campaign ahead of the last elections in April, billboards went up throughout Arab communities and towns in the Galilee urging voters to boycott the polls.
Many residents assumed the ads, which did not identify their funders, were an initiative of political forces in the Arab community opposed to the Jewish state and its institutions, such as the Islamic Movement’s Northern Branch.
But a Channel 12 news inquiry broadcast on Thursday found that the campaign was likely commissioned and financed by right-wing Jews who hoped to suppress Arab turnout.
Channel 12 contacted the companies that sold the billboard space or produced the ads, and discovered they had all worked with anonymous clients whose accents and comments indicated they were Jews.
One firm, A. A. Barak Billboards and Advertising, said it had turned down a NIS 250,000 ($71,000) order from a client who expressed a desire to suppress Arab turnout.
“Someone called me, a Jew with an American accent, and he says to me, ‘I want to do a campaign among the Arabs to boycott the election, to encourage Arabs to boycott the vote,” the company’s owner told Channel 12.
“I asked him, ‘Why would you ask for that?’ He said, ‘There are lots of Arabs that don’t want to vote, and we’re not interested in Arabs voting. I have a very serious amount [of money] — why not take the money and put up the campaign?'”
Asked what more he could say about the customer, the ad company owner, whose name was not revealed by Channel 12, added, “I think he’s someone from the settlements. He said I should bring him a receipt and the receipt will be sent to the United States, some nonprofit there, and they will send me the money. He said he wants as few Arabs as possible to vote.”
One advertising company that ran some of the ads, Itkan, said the client was careful to hide his or her identity.
“It’s a business secret. We just produced the event [after] getting the order from someone anonymous. I don’t have names,” the company’s spokesperson told the channel.
“I believe it’s someone who isn’t connected to politics, someone with money that wanted to do something they believe in. It seemed to me it was a Jew.”
Ayman Odeh, chairman of the predominantly Arab Joint List party, demanded a criminal probe following the Channel 12 report.
“This evening it became clear that suppressing our vote is their victory,” he said in a Twitter post. “We won’t let them settle in our ballot stations. We demand a criminal investigation. Those responsible should be in prison.”
He added: “The right is afraid of Arabs, but we are not afraid of the right.”
Voter turnout did indeed drop precipitously in the April 9 race, by an estimated 15 points from 64 percent of eligible voters in the Arab community to 49%. That brought the Arab representation down from 13 seats for the Joint List in 2015 to a combined 10 for Arab parties in March.
During the April 9 elections, Likud equipped some 1,200 polling officials working at ballot stations in Arab population centers with hidden body cameras to prevent what the party claims was widespread fraud that has occurred in the community. Critics charged that Likud’s efforts were a form of voter intimidation designed to keep the non-Jewish minority from the polls, a claim seemingly corroborated by the company contracted by Likud to carry out the operation.
Ahead of the next national elections on September 17, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to fast-track legislation that would allow activists in Likud and other parties to again bring cameras into polling stations, despite opposition from legal officials and the Central Elections Committee.
On election day in 2015, in a bid to get out right-wing voters, Netanyahu famously warned that Arabs were voting “in droves,” comments for which he was pilloried and later apologized.