Seeking extra seat, Likud team said hunting for forged Arab votes, discrepancies

Joint List currently has buffer of 2,521 votes, below which it would lose its 6th seat to Likud; Religious Zionism's Simcha Rothman says probe will look for 'mistakes, forgeries'

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses his supporters on the night of the Israeli elections, at the party's headquarters in Jerusalem, March 24, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly formed a team that will search for potential mistakes and problems with votes for the Joint List, seeking to annul some 2,600 votes to win a seat for the Likud party at the Arab party’s expense and shift the Knesset balance slightly in his favor.

Currently, the Joint List has a buffer of 2,521 votes, below which it loses its 6th seat. Under Israel’s complex seat distribution system, Likud, currently closest to an additional seat by number of votes, would gain from the Joint List’s loss.

This would shift Netanyahu’s bloc of potential supporters from 59 to 60 of the Knesset’s 120 total. Not yet a majority, but at least not a minority.

But to do so, Likud would need to discredit 2,521 votes cast by the Arab public, an unlikely scenario, and one that is sure to elicit intense criticism for the attempt to disenfranchise members of Israel’s Arab minority.

According to a report in the Yisrael Hayom newspaper, the team will focus on finding discrepancies at polling stations with a high turnout for the Joint List in Arab towns such as Umm al-Fahm, Taybeh, Jaffa and Kfar Manda.

The report said the team is made up of Likud MK Amit Halevi, Religious Zionism MK-to-be and lawyer Simcha Rothman and lawyer Michael Rabilo. Netanyahu reportedly met with the three on Wednesday to examine the legal options open to Likud.

Religious Zionism party member Simcha Rothman seen at the party’s headquarters in Modi’in on election night, March 23, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Rothman, who was elected to the Knesset as the fourth candidate on the far-right Religious Zionism slate, confirmed to the paper that the team had been tasked with finding “mistakes and forgeries.”

Likud has in the past claimed efforts toward voter fraud among Arab Israeli voters, angering the Arab community and the center-left, but has failed to provide solid proof of any mass fraud.

Ahead of the latest election Netanyahu abandoned such rhetoric and attempted to embrace the Arab public, in a bid to net support from the commnuity that had middling results.

With all votes counted Thursday evening, results showed Netanyahu had failed, for the fourth time in a row, to win a clear parliamentary majority. The results left both the premier and his political opponents once again without a clear path to forming a coalition government, and heralded enduring gridlock and a potential fifth election.

According to the results, which will be presented to President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday, Netanyahu’s Likud has won 30 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

In his bloc of supporters, the ultra-Orthodox Shas has won 9 seats, United Torah Judaism, 7, and Religious Zionism, 6. The sum gives Netanyahu’s camp 52 seats, short of a 61-seat majority, even with the potential support of Naftali Bennett’s Yamina faction, with 7.

In the bloc of parties opposed to Netanyahu, Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party is the largest with 17 seats, followed by Benny Gantz’s Blue and White with 8. Together with Labor, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, the Arab-majority Joint List, Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope and the left-wing Meretz, the bloc would have 57 seats. Ra’am, with its tally of 4 seats, could secure a majority for either side and has emerged as a central player during the vote count.

If Likud were to be successful in disqualifying enough Joint List votes to gain a 31st seat, the pro-Netanyahu bloc, including Yamina, would grow to 60, resulting in a dead heat between the two blocs — though Yamina has not committed to supporting the premier.

While Likud is the party closest to gaining a seat, the Joint List’s 6th seat is only the second most vulnerable in terms of number of votes needed to be disqualified for it to be transferred to Likud. The most vulnerable seat is in fact Shas’s 9th, but moving that to the Likud would not change the coalition math between the blocs.

Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas at the Islamist party’s campaign headquarters in the northern city of Tamra, on March 23, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Ra’am could potentially put either side over the 61-seat mark for a majority, but right-wing politicians — both in the pro-Netanyahu bloc and the anti-Netanyahu camp — have ruled out basing a coalition on the party’s support, due to what they say is its anti-Zionist stance.

Netanyahu himself has repeatedly ruled out sitting with Abbas in a coalition, saying that Ra’am was no different from the Arab-majority Joint List alliance — long considered a political pariah due to some of its members’ non-Zionist and anti-Zionist views.

If the blocs were tied, Netanyahu would likely try to bring over a “defector” from one of the Zionist parties in the anti-Netnayahu bloc, rather than having to rely on the support of Ra’am. With just one extra vote, Netanyahu would have a majority to form a government.

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