Rivlin defends top legal officials, berates critics amid camera bill controversy

Rivlin defends top legal officials, berates critics amid camera bill controversy

President throws his support behind attorney general and Central Elections Committee head, warns against defaming public servants who are safeguarding election

President Reuven Rivlin in Tel Aviv on September 5, 2019. (Flash90)
President Reuven Rivlin in Tel Aviv on September 5, 2019. (Flash90)

President Reuven Rivlin on Sunday defended Israel’s top legal authorities, who had come under fire over their opposition to a government-backed bill enabling political party representatives to use monitoring cameras in polling stations in the upcoming election.

Rivlin’s remarks came shortly after the cabinet unanimously approved the bill in an effort to see it passed into law by the Knesset before the September 17 vote.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud party is pushing the so-called camera bill, has repeatedly said in recent days that anyone who opposes deploying cameras in polling stations is trying to “steal the elections” from him by enabling alleged voter fraud to swing the results.

“I support the members of the Central Elections Committee led by Supreme Court Deputy Chief Justice Hanan Melcer and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit in the face of baseless and irresponsible political attacks they are experiencing,” Rivlin tweeted.

“I reject with disgust the attempts to erode public trust in these bodies and institutions,” he wrote.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, far left, and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, far right, attend the weekly cabinet meeting, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on September 8, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/Flash90)

Melcer and Mandelblit have been under attack from the right for their opposition to the bill, which they have warned could undermine the fairness and legitimacy of the upcoming election.

“We must not defame the best of our public servants, who defend Israeli democracy and safeguard as much as possible the integrity of the elections,” Rivlin cautioned.

The camera bill is 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.

The legislation has also drawn fierce criticism from rival politicians, who have criticized the caretaker government over its attempt to change the law mere days before the election.

Nevertheless, the bill was approved unanimously by cabinet ministers — with Mandelblit in attendance at the meeting. 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.

Blue and White Party leader MK Benny Gantz, the main candidate seeking to unseat Netanyahu in the election, said the prime minister is trying sow chaos and preemptively inject doubt about the election results.

“Anyone who disputes the most basic democratic purpose is not suitable to lead the country,” Gantz tweeted. “Netanyahu wants to damage the legitimacy of results from the future elections, and is preparing the ground for chaos on election day and and after it.”

Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint List, speaks during a press conference in Nazareth, July 27, 2019. (Flash90)

MK Ayman Odeh, leader of the main Arab party the Joint List, responded to the cabinet approval by saying, “Netanyahu will do anything to cause a panicked vote by Likud voters — and to suppress voting by Arab citizens.”

Odeh echoed Gantz’s claim that Netanyahu was preparing a day-after strategy to reject the elections results and said the prime minister will “declare ‘the Arabs stole the election from us’ which will also became the basis for appealing the results after he loses.”

Blue and White No. 2 MK Yair Lapid tweeted the camera bill is “a racist distraction designed to attack the rule of law.”

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. Critics said the move was aimed at intimidating Arab voters to keep them from voting. In the recent campaign cycle, Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman has called for installing cameras in polling stations in ultra-Orthodox areas.

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.

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.”

An Arab Israeli woman casts her vote during elections for the Knesset on April 9, 2019, at a polling station in the northern town of Tayibe. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

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

“Only someone who wants to steal the election would oppose the placement of cameras,” Netanyahu 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.

read more: