What to Watch in Israeli Democracy:
Week of April 7th

8 April 2019

A lot is at stake in Israel’s 2019 election. If you care about democracy, human rights, and social justice in Israel, here are some things to know.

NIF doesn’t support or oppose any candidate or political party for election; we look at the big picture and share the most important stories about issues that affect Israelis from all walks of life.

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A Note from Michal Sella: Fake News — the New Normal

What Happened This Week. What to Look For Next Week.

NIF Issues at Play

Citizens’ Election Headquarters

Fake News — the New Normal

photo of Michal SellaAnalysis from Michal Sella, Director of the Shatil Center for Policy Change

The 2019 election campaign is reaching its end. No one knows how it will turn out. Professor Camil Fuchs, veteran pollster, has called this election “the most difficult election [to predict] in 23 years.” Given that, let’s take stock of what we do know. Recent years have been defined by the rise of populist politics in Israel, consistent with trends around the world. And this election has borne out one of the characteristic phenomenon of contemporary politics—the flourishing of ‘fake news.’ If we take a step back, we can see that this election campaign is unfolding in a manner remarkably similar to other recent elections in democracies experiencing the ‘populist moment.’ These elections are marked by social network manipulations and fake news spread by purportedly trustworthy sources in the mainstream media.

This past week, a story appeared in the national spotlight that exposed a network of fictitious social media accounts, allegedly linked to the Likud Party. The article, which was simultaneously published in Yedioth Ahronoth and the New York Times, revealed to Israelis the explosive story of a network of hundreds of fictitious Twitter accounts actively promoting content favorable to Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud. According to the group of researchers that uncovered the network, since the its formation, the network has produced over 130,000 tweets garnering in aggregate 2.5 million views. Twitter has since blocked hundreds of accounts identified by the report.

The network disseminated messages that are now considered “fake news” stories designed to denigrate Benny Ganz, former chief of staff and head of the Kachol Lavan (Blue and White) list and the main challenger of Benjamin Netanyahu. According to a report released last week, 2 million Israelis, one-fifth of Israel’s population, were exposed to a false story about Gantz with the headline: “Gantz does not rule out sitting with the Arab parties and is supported by the Palestinian Authority.” The analysis shows that this story was repeated 5,559 times in a variety of formulations on social media platforms.

If this sounds familiar, it may be because such tactics resonate with the tactics used in populist campaigns elsewhere. In the 2016 U.S. Presidential election for instance, fake news was a major factor in how the campaign unfolded. Social media networks were often the conduit for false stories that spread like wildfire in the traditional news media . Belief in these fake news stories was found to be very strongly linked to electoral outcomes. Similar images – memes – conveyed a sense that Clinton was mentally unfit to serve as president, severely ill, or engaged in outrageous behavior as Secretary of State, like selling weapons to the Islamic State. Clinton was subject to a damaging leak and faced the accusation that she might be liable to extortion by foreign adversaries.

It’s worth drawing the parallel to appreciate the extent to which fake news is a similarly powerful force in the Israeli elections. The same pipeline of fake news — beginning in social media networks, spreading to television channels, and making its way into credible interviews that define the public debate — seems to be operative in 2019. The same question which still hovers over the 2016 US election, threatens to mar the integrity of Israel’s democratic process and our faith in institutions like the media. Apart from the electoral implications of this trend, the sensationalist conspiracy theories and hyperbole that have defined the fake news industry have also distracted from the real issues that shape the future for Israelis and undermined public trust.

What remains to be seen is whether the fake news fever will prevail or Israeli citizens will be able to act according to their political orientations and express their worldview through their votes, based on the reality on the ground and of their lived experience. Given what we have seen in recent elections in the US and Europe, it is not certain that this is so straightforward.

Michal Sella
Director, Shatil’s Center for Policy Change

What Happened This Week. What to Look For Next Week.

Small Parties and Undecideds

In some respects, this election is proving to be among the most difficult to predict in recent memory. We should be ready for a number of surprises as the votes are counted. That is not because we can expect a large number of voters to defect to different parties. To a great extent, voters appear to be remaining loyal to the parties they intended to vote for before the campaign began, according to a recent poll by the Israel Democracy Institute. In addition, there is a significant but small bloc of undecided voters whose support the main parties are competing to capture.

Unlike in a two party system, the two parties most likely to be asked to form the next government by President Rubi Rivlin, are unlikely to garner more than one third of votes. With Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu neck-and-neck in the final polls (Israeli law stipulates that polling cease in the days before election day), what will determine the outcome is who is most likely to be able to assemble a coalition with smaller parties. Furthermore, in Israel’s parliamentary system, parties must receive 3.25% of votes in order to qualify for the Knesset. If they fail to meet this threshold, the votes cast for this party are not counted. And because of this fact, which small parties make it past the electoral threshold has an outsized impact on the fortunes of the larger parties. In this election five parties, some of them likely members of a coalition, are hovering near the electoral threshold.

Read more:

The Undecided Voters Who Will Decide Israel’s Election by Allison Kaplan Sommer (Haaretz)

Why This Is the Most Difficult Election to Predict Since Netanyahu’s First Victory by Anshel Pfeffer (Haaretz)

A Network of False Accounts

Political attention was focused last week on the story broken by Yedioth Ahronoth and the New York Times about a network of fake Twitter accounts allegedly connected to the campaign of Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud Party.

Read more: Twitter Network Uses Fake Accounts to Promote Netanyahu, Israel Watchdog Finds By Ronen Bergman (New York Times)

Complaints were filed with the Israel Police, the State Comptroller, and the Central Elections Committee, by a combination of civil society organizations, including the Movement for Quality Government, and opposition parties. The report by the Big Bots Project alleged, according to journalists Ronen Bergman and Inbal Tvizer, that “a coordinated and synchronized network that is operated by real people and which disseminates propaganda in service of the Likud and Netanyahu, and against his opponents.” This network of false accounts spread on aggregate more than 130,000 messages which reached Israeli audiences more than 2.5 million views. Many of these posts were retweeted by the prime minister’s son and social media adviser, Yair Netanyahu, as well as by other key figures in the Likud campaign.

The Likud Party has responded by claiming these accounts are operated by legitimate Likud activists–and have launched a campaignframing the accusations of wrongdoing as an attempt to dehumanize Likud voters and part of a pattern of ethnic condescension to the Likud base.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit stated his position regarding petitions seeking to prevent the Likud from funding or operating false social media accounts for purposes of propaganda. At issue is whether social media accounts that operate in connection with a political party must openly declare their affiliation. Mandelblit has not concluded that the petitions adequately prove the underlying claim that the network of social media accounts amounts to election propaganda produced by or funded by the Likud. However, a criminal investigation may proceed. Researchers from the Big Bots Project found that Twitter has blocked 258 accounts in the aftermath of the report. It was reported that previously Facebook removed 30 fake profiles, most of which favored Netanyahu.

The Submarines Affair Continues

The ‘Submarine Affair,’ the latest corruption affair involving Prime Minister Netanyahu that resurfaced last week, has continued to dominate attention, as an number of senior diplomatic and security officials spoke out against Netanyahu’s conduct in the affair.

Netanyahu has denied any connection to the submarine affair, though in a televised interview with Keren Marciano of Channel 12 news, the prime minister confirmed that he personally authorized the sale of German submarines to Egypt, waving Israel’s right to object to the sale of such equipment, without informing then Chief of Staff Benny Gantz or then Defense Minister Moshe “Bogie” Yaalon. Netanyahu claimed the defense minister “didn’t need to know about the submarines” and that “Israel has secrets that only the prime minister and a handful of others know.” He claimed to have informed Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit–a claim refuted by Mandelblit.

On Wednesday, April 3, a group of senior former security officials, including Ehud Barak, former prime minister and defense minister, alongside, other senior former security officials, held a press conference in Tel Aviv, in which they called the submarine affair the most grave case of corruption in the history of the state of Israel, calling for a commission of inquiry.

While Netanyahu was not named by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit in connection to Case 3000, or the ‘Submarine Affair,’ recent revelations have exposed additional connections between the prime minister and the affair. The allegation is that Netanyahu personally profited from the sale of German submarines to Israel, in connection with his investment in a company owned by his cousin Nathan Milikowsky, who supplied steel to the German shipbuilder ThyssenKrupp. This connection has raised suspicions over potential conflicts of interest. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is likely to instruct the police to launch a criminal investigation against Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu after the elections.

Read more: Netanyahu and the submarine scandal: Everything you need to know by Michael Bachner (Times of Israel)

NIF Issues in Play

Occupation and Annexation

Unlike in prior Israeli elections, Palestinians and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were largely absent from the campaigns. Until Saturday. In fact, this past week, the Associated Press headline noted that “Palestinians Are Nowhere to Be Found in Israel’s Election.” That was largely true until Saturday evening when Prime Minister Netanyahu announced on Israel’s Channel 12 News, three days before the elections, that he would begin to extend Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank. Referring to the “next stage” after the US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, Benjamin Netanyahu said, “Yes. I will extend sovereignty but I don’t distinguish between the settlement blocs and the isolated ones, because each settlement is Israeli and I will not hand it over to Palestinian sovereignty.” This announcement is a departure from prior stated positions, and reflects growing agitation in right flank of the Likud base and among the party’s competitors, to apply Israeli sovereignty to — or annex — the West Bank.

Following Netanyahu’s announcement, leaders of the Kachol Lavan (Blue and White) list Benny Gantz, Gabi Ashkenazi, and Yair Lapid came out against unilateral measures to annex the West Bank on Sunday morning, with Gantz calling the announcement “irresponsible.” Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki told The Associated Press pointedly raised the issue with Netanyahu applying sovereignty over the West Bank: “If Netanyahu wants to declare Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank, then you know he has to face a real problem, the presence of 4.5 million Palestinians, what to do with them.” The US State Department has issued no comment regarding Netanyahu’s statement.

Read more: Netanyahu Vows to Start Annexing West Bank, in Bid to Rally the Right by David Halbfinger (New York Times)

There continues to be a stark differences on matters related to Israel’s occupation, the conflict with the Palestinians and the preference for separation from or annexation of the West Bank among Israel’s political parties. On this topic, there are recent developments in the campaign this past week worth noting.

  • When asked in an interview with the Times of Israel, when asked whether he would annex the settlement blocs, Gantz replied, “I won’t do anything unilaterally. We will rejuvenate the diplomatic process, we will try to reach an agreement with our neighbors, an agreement with the Palestinians, as much as we can in this direction. But we want to develop the settlement blocs much more because we know they will remain with us all the way.”

    Read more: Future of Israel as a democracy is at stake in this election by David Horovitz and Raoul Wootliff (Times of Israel)

  • This past week, former Minister of Education Naftali Bennett whose breakaway party, New Right, is hovering around the electoral threshold, released a new ad advocating for a “right wing peace.” Provocatively filmed in Rabin Square, where former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, Bennet holds a white dove — the symbol of the peace camp — in his hand with a suffocating grip, making the case that only the right wing can bring peace — “the peace of the right.”

    The New Right party of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked had previously announced that it will submit a bill within the first week of the next Knesset designed to apply Israeli law to Area C — the area comprising 60% of the West Bank which is controlled exclusively by Israel.

Popular support for annexation of the West Bank has grown as this issue has migrated from the fringe of the Israeli political spectrum into the mainstream right. A recent Haaretz poll found that 42% of Israelis back West Bank annexation, in full or in party, while only 28% oppose annexation.

Must read: Haaretz survey on annexation and essential breakdown of party positions by Dina Kraft (Haaretz)

Read more: What The Candidates In Israel’s Elections Say About The Conflict by Dahlia Scheindlin (LobeBlog)

Democracy and the Rule of Law

Fueling the Campaign Against the Courts

Following the Supreme Court’s decision to bar Kahanist candidate Michael Ben-Ari (Otzma Yehudit) from the election and overturn the Central Election Committee’s decision to disqualify the Balad list and Dr. Ofer Kassif of the Hadash-Ta’al party, populist candidates have used these rulings to fuel an ongoing campaign against the legitimacy of the Supreme Court and the judiciary. Israeli Justice Minister and New Right party leader Ayelet Shaked appeared in a campaign video that sent shock waves throughout Israeli social and traditional media in which she appeared as a model in a Chanel-style perfume commercial. The name of the scent: Fascism. The conceit of the campaign, which touted her purported achievements — “judicial revolution,” “judicial appointments,” “curbing judicial activism,” “separation of powers,” “restraint of the Supreme Court” — is represented by her critics as fascism. The ad concludes with the Shaked smelling the scent “Fascism” and saying, “To me it just smells like democracy.” The video was widely criticized by political opponents and foreign observers, many of whom interpreted her video as an open endorsement of fascism.

Read more:

A Perfume Called Fascism by Roger Cohen (New York Times)

Why Is Israel’s Justice Minister in an Ad for ‘Fascism’ Perfume? by David Halbfinger (New York Times)

After the Israel Central Elections Committee, by a slim majority of 16-15, rejected the Attorney General’s recommendation and voted not to disqualify chairman of the far-right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, Michael Ben Ari, opposition parties along with civil society leaders, including the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) of the Reform Movement, appealed the decision of Israel’s Central Elections Committee to the Supreme Court. The Court ruled to disqualify an extremist candidate from the consolidated list Union of the Right, Michael Ben Ari, leader of the Otzma Yehudit. Israel’s Attorney General supported his disqualification on the grounds of his proven track record of anti-Arab racism and incitement. The Supreme Court also ruled to uphold the guidance of the Attorney General and overturn the decisions of Israel’s Central Elections Committee to disqualify Dr. Ofer Kassif of the Hadash-Ta’al party and the Balad list, allowing him to run in the election. Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel petitioned the Supreme Court against the disqualification of Balad and Dr. Ofer Kassif.

Read more:

By Barring Kahanist, Israel’s Supreme Court Did Its Job: Protecting Democracy by Mordechai Kremitzer (Haaretz)

The Right Wing vs. the Court (Haaretz editorial)

Social Justice

In the final run-up to the election, several significant reports were published this week that highlight critical gaps in socioeconomic performance.

The Adva Center published Israel: A Social Report 2018, an annual report measuring inequality in Israel. The report, which contains key metrics on aspects of inequality in Israel, found that in 2019, Israel remains one of the most unequal economies among OECD countries. While Adva also reported a lessening of the gender gap in salaries, Israel similarly remains ranked among the countries in the OECD with the highest gaps, with a disparity of 21.6%. Furthermore, the housing crisis was found to contribute to a significant transfer of wealth to the top tier of Israeli earner.

Read an English-language summary of Adva’s report here: Israel: A Social Report 2018

Several other studies, by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, the Bank of Israel, as well as research by Professor Dan Ben-David, a researcher at the Department of Public Policy at Tel Aviv University, included an assessment of Israeli socioeconomic indicators which presented a bleak picture of several socio-economic aspects of Israeli society. Ben-David’s research highlighted stress within Israel’s healthcare system, reflecting neglect since the mid-1970s and showing that hospitals in Israel have among the densest (lowest beds per capita) in the OECD. The study also reveals that the number of deaths from infectious diseases in Israel is the largest in among advanced economies.

Despite the burning social issues and public policy challenges that emerged clearly from these new studies, the political discourse remains largely indifferent to social issues and focused instead mainly on the standoff between the two main candidate’s suitability for prime minister. Adva specifically noted in its report that at such times, in the midst of a heated elections, when one expects the public debate around matters of social inequality to be greater, this is largely not the case, as “various political parties devote very little time to policy questions in general and socio-economic policy in particular.” One other way to reflect on this trend: the two political parties that have publically associated themselves with socioeconomic issues — the Kulanu (All of US) party of Moshe Kahlon and and the Gesher (Bridge) Party of Orly Levy are hovering just above the electoral threshold.

Healthcare in the Periphery
Civil society has continued to raise the issue of healthcare equity in Israel’s periphery. The Civil Forum for the Advancement of Health in the Galilee produced and led a session at the Fifth Galilee Conference held at Tel Hai College on the topic of health in the Galilee, which included politicians from several parties who presented their vision for promoting health in the Galilee, as well as the president of the college, the mayor of Kiryat Shmona, and Orna Peretz, the Likud activist whom the prime minister dismissed as “boring” in an election-related event that took place in that city earlier this year.

Equality and Inclusive Citizenship

The Aguda – The Israeli National LGBT Task Force Israel’s foremost organization promoting the welfare and rights of the LGBT community, released a campaign this week urging the Israeli public to consider the LGBT friends and family members as they casts its vote for Knesset. The slogan of the campaign, “No rights, no vote” asks voters to make full LGBT equality a non-negotiable condition for supporting any list for Knesset. “They say that during elections, we make a decisions about big things. Economy. Security. And them: your sons and your daughters, your brothers and sisters, your friends, aren’t they important? Yes. We know they are important to you. This time, vote [with them in mind].”

On the eve of elections, several notable trends were observed in Arab society:

A Projected Decrease in Voter Turnout:

  • A survey conducted by Dr. Aas Atrash at the Yaffa Institute, for Hadash-Ta’al found that voter turnout among Arab citizens is predicted to diminish to only 51%, compared with 64% at the time of the establishment of the Joint List in 2015–down from 55% in the previous decade.
  • Voters reported to the pollsters that they had no interest in politics. Some reported that there was no list in political arena that represented them.

A sense of ineffectiveness in the political arena:

  • The survey depicted an Arab public that interpreted the dissolution of the Joint List as a sign of division and ineffectiveness of Arab politics. 60% of respondents responded that the split will lead to the loss of influence of the Arab members of Knesset.
  • 20% assessed that the Knesset is no longer a relevant arena of struggle and will therefore abandon it as an area for activism.
  • 10% report that they will boycott the vote for an ideological reason.

Read more:

Half of Israeli Arab Public Won’t Vote in Election, Survey Finds by Jack Khoury (Haaretz)

Turnout among the Arab community could dip below 50 percent on April 9 by David B. Green (Haaretz)

Tamer Nafar, Palestinian rapper, artist and social activist, released groundbreaking video, “Tamer Must Vote,” that puts a fine point on these trends. The video depicts Nafar in boxing ring — with himself – debating whether he should vote in the election. This, more than any other thing put this central question of this election for Palestinians – the question of Palestinian participation in and exclusion from the Israeli political process — on the public agenda. The video, an instantaneous viral success, making the case for direct political participation, speaks to the internal debate within Palestinian society about whether to engage in the democratic process to change the reality or whether boycotting the election is a way to protest the Palestinians participation as giving a liberal veneer on what is increasingly an illiberal democracy.

Read: Boycott Israel’s Election? A Palestinian Rapper Says No by David Halbfinger (New York Times)

Listen: Should Palestinians Vote in Israel? (+972)

Civil Society Campaigns

Meanwhile, civil society has been active in creating an alternative to the campaigns of incitement, working to protect voting rights of Israel’s Arab citizens and create the groundwork for a Jewish-Arab political alliance for democracy.

As Israel’s public conversation is being poisoned by incessant incitement against Arab citizens, Zazim: Community Action is reclaiming the idea that the Arabs are “coming in droves” to vote – by leading a campaign to provide Bedouin from the Negev with access to polling places by funding buses. Voting rights are the very core of democracy, and Zazim’s campaign is focused on making sure that every Israeli — including Bedouin citizens from unrecognized villages in the Negev — has the ability to exercise it.

Omdim B’Yachad (Standing Together) launched a campaign in the final days of the election highlighting the political imperative of Jewish-Arab cooperation. The campaign addresses the prime minister, saying: “From the moment you announced the election, you talk just about us [Israel’s Arab citizens]: You know, the doctor at the hospital who saves lives, the teacher who educates children, the bus driver stuck in traffic…, the young engineer whom you expect to build this country, the student who dreams of changing this society. Or the construction worker who risks his life and barely survives month to months. You know, us, the Arabs. We are equal citizens.” The video, highlighting the disciplined campaign of incitement against Israel’s Arab citizens that has defined this election, proposes a instead plan of action: “Arabs and Jews — together. We are here, Arabs and Jews.”

Read: Poll: Jews, Arabs much less divided than Israeli politics lets on by Dahlia Scheindlin (+972)

Polls shows Israelis believe in pluralism, mutual respect, and the ability of humanity to defy oppression, protest inequity, and pursue justice by Naomi Chazan, President Emeritus of the New Israel Fund (Times of Israel)

The past several years have witnessed a deterioration in the relationship between the Jewish and Arab populations in Israel. The nation state bill, which discriminates against Israel’s non-Jewish population, has become law. And a political taboo preventing political cooperation between Zionist parties with Arab parties has been strengthened. This election in particular has exacerbated these trends.

Must read:

The Real Reason for Netanyahu’s Ferocious Attacks on Israel’s Arab Citizens by Ron Gerlitz co-director of Sikkuy, The Association for Civic Equality in Israel (Haaretz)

In Israeli Election Ads, to Stir up the Base, Anything Goes by David Halbfiner (New York Times)

Citizens’ Election Headquarters

A coordinating body for NIF and other Israeli organizations that support democracy and equality, the Citizens’ Election Headquarters continues to monitor for the tactics of division and fear, and help advocates respond with one voice.

This week, the CHQ dominated headlines by breaking a story that has defined the election cycle this week. Yedioth Ahronoth and The New York Times reported that a network of false social media accounts allegedly financed by the Likud has been operating in Israel during this election.

Previously Citizens’ Headquarters helped expose an attempt by the united bloc of right wing parties to mobilize yeshivot (religious academies) and activists from the Gar’in Torani (Torah Communities) movement, to aid in the election of right wing parties. Investigative work and spokesmanship by the Headquarters led MK Stav Shafir (Labor) to present to Israel’s Central Elections Committee on the matter, demanding that the union be warned about violation of election laws barring educational and religious institutions from engaging in electioneering.