The Central Election Committee held a hearing on Sunday over a new right-wing initiative to combat alleged voter fraud in Arab towns, days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to gain a majority in the Knesset to pass legislation that would have allowed party operatives to film at the ballot box.
Last week, a group of settler and national religious leaders launched an online fundraising campaign for an initiative they titled “Gatekeepers.” The organizers said they will use the NIS 100,000 ($28,336), they hope to receive to fund the salaries of hundreds of individuals recruited to stand outside polling stations in ballot stations in Arab towns and cities. The initiative is designed to “protect” the polling committee officials representing right-wing parties inside, organizers maintained.
Subsequently, attorney Shachar Ben Meir petitioned to the Central Elections Committee, demanding that the panel order Gatekeepers to cease its activity. Ben Meir argued that it was tantamount to hiring a “private militia,” which will interfere with the election process and could possibly lead to violence at the polls during Tuesday’s vote.
Melcer will hand down his ruling in the coming days.
A video accompanying the plea for funds shows four clips recorded at Arab community polling stations in the 2015 election, during which polling committee members can be heard suggesting tampering with the ballot count.
“We will not allow the left-wing bloc to steal the elections,” the video caption declares, employing rhetoric identical to that used by Netanyahu over the past several weeks while lobbying in favor of the Camera Bill.
“On election day, we’ll dispatch hundreds of guards who will protect the poll watchers. Donate to Gatekeepers and prevent the election fraud in the Arab sector,” the video concludes, with harrowing music playing in the background.
Signed on the bottom of the fundraiser are Binyamin Regional Council chairman Yisrael Gantz, Beit El Local Council chairman Shai Alon, former Samaria Regional Council chairman Benny Katzover, Samaria Settlers’ Committee chairman Tzachi Dickstein, former Binyamin Settlers’ Committee chairman Itzik Shadmi, former Jewish Home official Haim Falk, former Gush Etzion Regional Council chairman Moshe Seville, along with actor and Beit El resident Hagai Luber.
Fundraising largely fails, but activists press on
As of Sunday night, the campaign had only reached 22 percent of its goal ($7,340).
Falk acknowledged in a phone call with The Times of Israel that the fundraising had failed and that they currently only have enough money to pay for 40 activists, who would be responsible for patrolling roughly 120 polling stations. However, he remained optimistic that additional donations would come in over the next two days allowing for the employment of others. Moreover, he said that he expected some activists to volunteer for the campaign without asking for payment.
During Sunday’s hearing, Falk told Melcer that the middle-aged men recruited as part of the Gatekeepers initiative will stand outside the polling stations and provide a “security blanket” for the young polling committee officials inside, most of whom are in their early 20s.
In April, the Likud party equipped some 1,200 of its polling station representatives in Arab towns with hidden body cameras. At several locations, the discovery of the recording devices led to skirmishes between Likud officials and local poll workers, who were frustrated at having been targeted in the covert operation.
The operation’s organizers subsequently boasted having been responsible for reducing Arab voter turnout to its lowest-ever rate.
Likud has enlisted twice as many young adults — mostly from the national religious sector — to serve as polling station representatives on Tuesday, but this time Melcer has barred them from bringing cameras.
Nonetheless, the Gatekeeper organizers insist that extra assistance will be needed to protect the young polling committee members working on behalf of right-wing parties in Arab towns.
Ben Meir argued in the hearing that the initiative was nothing more than a “racist” provocation that was solely targeting Israel’s Arab minority.
Falk dismissed the claim that the activists he had recruited would violently intimidate Arab voters — a charge made by Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz last week.
Police oppose it; attorney general hesitant
Queried by Melcer for his opinion on the initiative, an Israel Police representative said that law enforcement had enough resources to maintain order at polling stations and that it was its job to protect polling committee members in case of emergency, not private individuals.
Melcer also asked Falk to ensure that the activists outside polling stations would not be armed.
Moreover, the police representative said that the presence of the partisan Gatekeepers could make it more difficult for the police to maintain order.
The dovish Labor party issued a statement last week saying it was recruiting “thousands” of its own activists to also stand outside Arab community polling stations in order to combat “Bibi’s [Netanyahu’s] bullies.”
Shortly after the hearing, the Attorney General’s Office issued a legal opinion saying that as long as the Gatekeepers members remained at least 10 meters away from the polling station and did not stray from its self-stated goal of simply providing support to polling committee members when necessary, “there is no evidence that justifies issuing an injunction.”
Earlier Sunday, the election czar turned down Netanyahu’s request for an “emergency” meeting to discuss the premier’s claims of rampant voter fraud in the Arab community.
Netanyahu’s request came a day after a report in the Maariv daily alleged that police had questioned only two out of 82 election officials who reported irregularities at their voting stations during the previous elections in April.
Likud has recently claimed that Ra’am-Balad, an alliance of two Arab parties that cleared the electoral threshold of 3.25% of votes by a margin of just a few hundred ballots, had made it into the Knesset thanks to fraudulent votes. The ruling party asserted that Ra’am-Balad’s purported fraud had deprived Likud of a majority coalition in the 120-member Knesset, and forced Netanyahu to call the new round of elections on September 17.