US chides Likud campaign for ‘promoting hatred’ against Arab Israelis
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US chides Likud campaign for ‘promoting hatred’ against Arab Israelis

State Department report also highlights party’s controversial ads targeting journalists and its efforts to ‘dissuade Arab voter turnout’ by installing cameras at polling stations

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

An ultra-Orthodox man walks near a Likud party billboard for Israel's upcoming general elections on February 17, 2020, showing the portraits of (L to R) Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White political alliance and Ahmad Tibi, Knesset member for the Joint List, with a caption reading, 'Gantz has no government without Tibi.' (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
An ultra-Orthodox man walks near a Likud party billboard for Israel's upcoming general elections on February 17, 2020, showing the portraits of (L to R) Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White political alliance and Ahmad Tibi, Knesset member for the Joint List, with a caption reading, 'Gantz has no government without Tibi.' (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

The US State Department on Wednesday criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party for “promoting hatred” against Arab Israelis in the two 2019 Knesset election campaigns.

“During the April and September national election campaigns, the Likud Party deployed messages promoting hatred against Arab citizens,” the department’s annual human rights report says.

Under the headline, “Promotion of Acts of Discrimination,” the report also lists a chatbot message on Netanyahu’s Facebook page that read, “The Arabs want to destroy all of us, women, children and men.”

The report notes that Facebook temporarily suspended this chatbot, and that the prime minister claimed he was unaware of the message.

A spokesperson for Likud did not respond to a Times of Israel request for comment.

Screenshot of a Facebook video dated September 3, 2019, in which Netanyahu stated there had been widespread voter fraud in the previous elections.

On September 12, 2019, Facebook suspended that chatbot on Netanyahu’s official page for violating hate speech policies.

“After careful review of the Likud campaign’s bot activities, we found a violation of our hate speech policy. We also found that the bot was misusing the platform in the time period allowed to contact people. As a result, we temporarily suspended the bot for 24 hours. Should there be any additional violations, we will continue to take appropriate action,” a spokesperson for the social media giant said at the time.

Likud said the claim about Arabs seeking to “annihilate us all” was a “mistake by a campaign worker” and said it had not been approved by Netanyahu.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu did not see these things, did not approve them, does not agree with them, and opposes them,” a Likud statement said at the time. “When the content was brought to his attention, he asked that it be taken down immediately.”

In a radio interview a day later, Netanyahu, the party chairman, repeated the claim that the incendiary claim was a mistake by a campaign employee, stressing: “I have friends in Arab countries and have respect for all people.”

An election campaign poster for the Likud party featuring journalists (L-R) Raviv Drucker, Guy Peleg, Amnon Abramovich and Ben Caspit, saying, “They will not decide. You will decide” in central Israel, January 20, 2019. (Twitter)

The State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, which is published annually and includes chapters on all countries, also mentioned the Likud’s controversial campaign targeting several Israeli journalists seen as critical of Netanyahu.

“In January the Likud Party published billboards with photographs of four journalists saying, ‘they will not decide,’ according to media reports,” the report reads.

“Following attacks in media and social media by the prime minister and his son, Yair Netanyahu, against Channel 12 News legal correspondent Guy Peleg, who covered the Netanyahu investigations, Peleg received a series of threats on WhatsApp and social media, which led the channel to provide him with a private security guard on August 30.”

A screen capture from a video on the Facebook account “they will not decide” depicts journalists (L-R) Raviv Drucker, Guy Peleg, Amnon Abramovich and Ben Caspit. (Screen capture: Facebook)

The report notes that in late August, Netanyahu called for a boycott of Israel’s Channel 12, accusing the network of “carrying out a ‘terror attack against democracy,’ while treating rival political parties more gently than Likud.”

While the April 9 and September 17 Knesset elections were “free and fair,” the report also notes Likud’s efforts to intimidate Arab voters by installing cameras at polling stations.

“In April the ruling Likud Party placed cameras in predominately Arab polling stations in an effort to dissuade Arab voter turnout,” the document states.

“Following the elections, the Central Elections Committee ruled that the placement of recording devices in polling stations is forbidden and would require formal legislation, which the Likud Party was unable to pass in the Knesset. During the September elections, observers noted minimal irregularities that had no impact on the final outcome.”

The human rights report, which has also made headlines for no longer referring to Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem as such but rather calling them “Arab residents” and “non-Israeli citizens,” does not cover the campaign leading up to the March 2, 2020, election.

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