What to Watch in Israeli Democracy:
Week of March 31st

29 March 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: ‘Mr. Security’ versus the Generals?

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

NIF Issues at Play

Citizens’ Election Headquarters

‘Mr. Security’ versus the Generals?

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

For anyone looking to understand the Israelis elections, it’s important to appreciate the context in which Israelis cast their votes. In one way or another that context always relates to the issue of security. This year is no exception. The public discussion in Israel over the past several weeks has been dominated by a deterioration in the security situation, in particular an escalation of the conflict in Gaza. Despite the overwhelming focus of attention on the prospects of war in Gaza, ironically it appears the two main contenders in the election, Benny Gantz and incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have largely refrained from directly using it against each other.

On Netanyahu’s side of this, it is the first time since former IDF chief of staff Ehud Barak headed the Labor Party (beginning 1996 and again in 2007), that Netanyahu cannot claim the mantle of “Mr. Security” unchallenged. In these elections, at the head of the Kachol Lavan (Blue and White) party three retired army generals stand against him: Benny Gantz, Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon and Gabi Ashkenazi. Netanyahu seems to understand that they are worth their weight in security terms. On the other side of the coin, despite a deteriorating security situation under Netanyahu, the generals understand they can’t successfully tarnish Netanyahu’s burnished brand of “Mr. Security.” And so Kachol Lavan has brought other matters to the fore. They have focused on the corruption charges against Netanyahu and have derided the prime minister for dividing Israeli society and for turning sectarian hatred and mistrust into a political weapon.

On the main, in the face of the security standoff both Netanyahu and Gantz’s campaigns have searched for alternative framings to compete. The Likud has chosen to frame its campaign explicitly against Arab citizens of Israel, making its signature slogan, “Bibi or Tibi.” Their main message is that Gantz will form a coalition with the support of Arab parties in the Knesset. The right has endeavored to associate Gantz with a ‘fifth column’ by accusing him of striking a political alliance with Israel’s Arab parties. Gantz announced that he will refuse to sit with Arab parties in the coalition, spurning support from Arab parties. In the absence of a reliable external enemy Netanyahu can reliably accuse his challengers of irresponsibly abetting, he has attempted to portray his opponents as assisting an internal enemy.

For their part, the Kachol Lavan party has framed its campaign as a choice between Netanyahu’s alliance with the Kahanist messianist right, whom Netanyahu has welcomed into the political mainstream. Billboards along the main Ayalon highway read: “Kahana Hai or Am Yisrael Hai” – “Kahana Lives or The People of Israel Live.” Netanyahu orchestrated a merger of the right wing parties that would include the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party. Likud ministers have been ordered to attack the Supreme Court’s decision to disqualify the head of that list, Michael Ben Ari, from running. Kachol Lavan has made a centerpiece of its campaign offering Israelis an alternative to the alliance between right-wing extremists — who it portrays as threatening Israel’s core democratic values–and an incumbent prime minister who paved their way into the Knesset.

What has emerged therefore, is a strange situation. With the risk of war in Gaza, Israel faces one the most unstable security situations during an election time in recent memory, yet on the main, Gantz and Bibi have refrained from making security the main approach of their campaigns, opting instead for other angles of attack.

Michal Sella
Director, Shatil’s Center for Policy Change

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

German Submarines Resurface

While Netanyahu was not named by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit in connection to Case 3000, or the ‘Submarine Affair,’ the most serious of the cases among several opened with potential connection to the prime minister, recent revelation have exposed additional connections between the prime minister and the affair. The newly resurfaced scandal involves the allegation that Mr. Netanyahu personally profited from the sale of German submarines to Israel, has dominated headlines, prompting the prime minister to grant his first televised interview in four years to Keren Marciano of Channel 12 news, on the eve of his departure to Washington, D.C. Netanyahu denied any connection to the submarine affair.

The prime minister admitted during the interview to have 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 this week.

The Kachol Lavan (Blue and White) Party criticized the prime minister for his role in authorizing the sale of advanced submarines to Egypt without the knowledge of the security establishment. Gantz accused Netanyahu of profiting personally from the submarine deals and called for a national commission of inquiry.

Read more:

Submarines and ‘State Secrets’: The Red Flags in Netanyahu’s Latest Version by Amos Harel (Haaretz)

Submarine Case Resurfaces in New Election Headache for Netanyahu by Gwen Ackerman (Bloomberg)

Submarine scandal resurfaces to menace Netanyahu by Ben Caspit (Israel Pulse)

US Recognition of Israeli Sovereignty on Golan Heights

Last week, US President Donald Trump changed decades-long American policy regarding the Golan Heights, in characteristic Trump style, via a tweet: “it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability!”

This move, coming on the heels of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Israel and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, was seen by policy analysts in Israel and the US as an effort to provide political ally, Prime Minister Netanyahu with a major political win to present to his base. The move was also interpreted, following the removal this month of the term “occupied territories” from the US State Department’s description of the Golan Heights in its annual report on human rights, as an early indication of the administration’s orientation towards Israel’s claims over the West Bank. Support for formal annexation of that territory has been growing within the ranks of the right, where it was previously a taboo except among the most extreme members of that camp. The Trump administration’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights will likely be understood by this camp as a green light for their goal of annexing the West Bank.

At a meeting at the White House this week with Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Trump formalized US recognition of Israeli sovereignty of the Golan Heights by signing an official proclamation recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan. Upon his premature return to Israel in the face of mounting escalation in Gaza, Netanyahu castigated the Israeli press corps for its insufficient coverage of his achievement.

The policy shift is widely seen as an effort to tilt the scales in favor of Prime Minister Netanyahu. However, the implications of this recognition extend far beyond the Israeli election. Recognition of Israel’s claims to the Golan contradict the principles of international law which emerged after the Second World War, which prohibit states from acquiring territory by conquest. The prime minister has made clear that he interprets the US recognition not solely in terms of Israel’s security needs on its northern border–but as a broader principle of international law. According to Israeli journalist Tal Schneider aboard the prime minister’s plane on his return flight to Israel from his brief visit in Washington, a senior Israeli official (speculated to be the prime minister himself) explained their view that the Golan Heights proclamation “means that if you fought a just war [and] others lost, they may not reclaim sovereignty “that is the significant implication”.

The European Union reiterated its consensus position that it “does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights.”

Read more:
Trump’s Golan Fiasco by Tamara Cofman Wittes and Ilan Goldenberg (Politico)

In Golan Heights, Trump Bolsters Israel’s Netanyahu but Risks Roiling Middle East by Mark Landler and Edward Wong (New York Times)

Trump’s Golan Heights Diplomatic Bombshell Was Bound to Drop. But Why Now? by Anshel Pfeffer (Haaretz)

Testing the Court: Contesting Decisions of Israel’s Central Elections Committee

Israel’s Central Elections Committee voted earlier this month to reject petitions to disqualify Kahanist candidates and parties but decided to ban an Arab party and a Jewish member of the Hadash party. The Central Elections Committee a body composed of representatives of political factions and headed by a Supreme Court justice is authorized to disqualify party lists and individual candidates that advocate or promote racism or oppose the character of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Disqualifying Jewish Extremist Michael Ben Ari
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.

Overturning Disqualifications of Balad and Ofer Kassif
The Supreme Court also ruled according 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. The Committee had based its decision to disqualify Dr. Kassif on past statements relating to the Jewish character of the state. As in past years, the Committee also voted to disqualify the Balad list. The Attorney General objected to these arguments and advised the Court to overturn the Committee’s decision. Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel petitioned the Supreme Court against the disqualification of Balad and Dr. Ofer Kassif. Adalah Attorney General Hassan Jabareen emphasized that the right of the Arab citizen to oppose the “Jewish character” of the state and to demand that the state exercise full equality for all its citizens, as declared in the Declaration of Independence.

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)

Incendiary Campaign Ads

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: Facism. 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 ends with the Justice Minister smelling the scent “Fascism” and saying, “To me it just smells like democracy.”

Read more:
Israel’s justice minister sells ‘fascist fragrance’ by Shlomi Eldar (al-Monitor)

In Israel’s elections, only the far right is talking about democracy by Dahlia Scheindlin (+972)

The video was widely criticized by political opponents and foreign observers, many of whom interpreted her video as an open endorsement of fascism. It also led to a series of spoofs meant to portray Shaked accomplishments as harming democracy.

For her part, Shaked said she was “not sorry” for the incendiary video. Instead, she doubled down, appearing in the costume at reading of the Scroll of Esther in a South Tel Aviv synagogue housing the yeshiva of Rabbi Ahiad Ettinger, who was killed in a terrorist attack. She appeared in costume with a bottle of “Fascism” perfume alongside right wing provocateur Sheffi Paz, a vocal agitator against African asylum seekers in South Tel Aviv.

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

NIF Issues in Play

Democracy and the Rule of Law

The decision by the Supreme Court to disqualify the far-right Otzma Yehudit party has provided fodder for populist campaigns by Israel’s right wing parties which seek to undermine the legitimacy of the Court. In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling disqualifying the leader of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (New Right) presented her “100 days plan,” which fiercely attacked the legal establishment. This has become a centerpiece of her campaign. Shaked has promised significant policy changes in the balance of power between the judicial and legislative branches, including abolishing the Judges Selection Committee, holding a public hearing for candidates to the Supreme Court, passing the ‘override clause’ which would neutralize the Supreme Court’s powers of judicial review, barring it from overriding Knesset decisions, among other measures. According to reporting for Yedioth Ahronoth by Tova Tzimuki, high ranking members of the legal establishment said of Shaked’s plan that she “crossed a red line and you declared war on the legal establishment.”

Meanwhile, billboards paid for by the New Right party convey the message that “Shaked will defeat the Supreme Court; Bennet will beat Hamas.” The parallelism — comparing Israel’s Supreme Court to Hamas — is part of the party’s populist campaign against the Court, as a bastion of liberal protections. Some have seen the entire campaign to disqualify the Arab parties and normalize Kahanists as a win-win for the Israeli right. The formula: either prevail in court and score a disqualification of Arab parties, or use the disqualification of Otzma Yehudit and the overturning of the Central Elections Committee vote to disqualify Balad party and Hadash party candidate as fuel in their campaign against the legitimacy of the High Court.

Must read: Saving Israeli Democracy by editorial staff (Haaretz)

Women in Politics

Last week the Chairman of Israel’s Central Elections Committee, Judge Hanan Meltzer, ruled that the ultra-Orthodox city of B’nei Barak is required to permit signs featuring women politicians during the election. This is a victory for the Women’s Lobby and MK Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) whose image [below] appeared on a sign that was banned by the municipality.

Social Justice

While unfortunately it cannot be said that issues of social justice are dominating this election, the conversation regarding the quality of Israel’s healthcare system has broken through to occupy public attention. While there is emerging agreement regarding the priority of investment in the healthcare system, there are differences between the parties on the solution.

  • The Labor Party presented the most detailed plan for improvement of the healthcare system, and has voiced repeated criticism of Deputy Health Minister Ya’akov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) over the state of the healthcare system. Itzik Shmuli who secured the first slot in the Labor Party primary, has especially emphasized this issue.
  • In its party platform, Kachol Lavan (Blue and White) committed to adding 12.5 billion NIS (3.45 billion USD) to the health system over the next five years, and to building new hospitals in the South and the North.
  • Likud has not publicly put forth a policy proposal regarding rehabilitation of the healthcare system.

Hospitals in the socio-political ‘periphery’ suffer from a lack of beds and human resources, and patients experience long waiting periods for treatment and surgery if they do not have access to private medicine. Hospitals in Israel reached hundreds of percent capacity this year and health officials repeatedly warned of their distress. And yet despite the fact that these issues are urgent, social policy debates do not have central prominence in the election discourse.

Public Housing
The two parties that can be said to be engaging with socio-economic issues often the Gesher party of Orly Levy Abekasis and of Moshe Kahlon are hovering near the threshold, with only the latter currently projected to clear the threshold. Meanwhile, while initially the Labor and Likud campaigns as well as Kachol Lavon (Blue and White) had not prioritized these topics, recently, Kachol Lavon has added the issue of public housing to their platform promising to add 60,000 public housing units. Similarly, the Labor Party has emphasized this issue, committing in their party platform to building an additional 300,000 apartments and to ending the waiting list for public housing, which last year Israel’s Ministry of Internal Housing found waiting list was expected to grow threefold in the coming decade to 28,000 people. The Gesher (Bridge) party led by Orly Levy Abekasis and Kulanu (All of Us) of Moshe Kahlon have both promised to implement a long-term solution to the shortage of public housing. Gesher will adapt the plan of creating 7,200 new public housing apartments. Kulanu has not offered yet a concrete plan but promised to create one. Yoav Galant the former Minister of Housing from the Likud Party promised he will insist on adapting his own plan to rehabilitation of public housing, which he termed the ‘Galant Plan,’ which includes changing the criteria for public housing and planning for thousands of additional new apartments for public housing.

Occupation and Annexation

President Donald Trump’s recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights has emboldened those within Israel’s right wing who favor annexation of the West Bank. The New Right party of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked has 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. This announcement came in the wake of a US State Department report which removed the term ‘occupied territories’ from its section on Israel. New Right leader Naftali Bennett welcomed the report claiming that the “United States no longer sees Judea and Samaria as an occupied territory”and thus concluding that “there is no reason to wait any longer. Half a million Israelis have to stop being second-class citizens. In Ariel, Ma’aleh Adumim and Ofra Jewish citizens discriminated against because they chose to settle the land.” Party Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked added, “It is time to apply sovereignty in Area C. The declaration of the United States obliges the State of Israel to make bold and courageous decisions that will help Israel’s security and full equality of rights for all its citizens.”

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

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

In speech at AIPAC this week, Benny Gantz affirmed positions on the Israeli Palestinian issue which largely conform to Netanyahu’s positions on the issue. Gantz promised that Jerusalem will remain the undivided capital of the Jewish people. He thanked President Trump for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and for relocating the US embassy, and for his administration’s recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. He also announced that “the Jordan Valley will [always] remain Israel’s eastern security border” and that “the responsibility for the security over the land of Israel will remain in the hands of the IDF and the IDF alone.”

Equality and Inclusive Citizenship

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.

The Likud has chosen a slogan for its campaign materials that frames the election as a choice: ‘Bibi or Tibi,’ referring to Ahmed Tibi, a prominent Arab MK and leader of the Ta’al party. Likud candidates Miri Regev, Gila Gamliel, David Bitan and others, repeated the Likud party line: that the choice is not between Benjamin Netanyahu and his centrist challengers from Kachol Lavan (Blue and White), but rather between Likud and a government that includes Arab parties. Miri Regev (Likud) aimed to use the terrorist attack in the West Bank settlement of Ariel to incite against the Arab sector, saying that Arab MK “Ahmed Tibi was not prepared to condemn murderers, and that is what happens when shaheeds are encouraged – and it is with this person that Gantz and Lapid want to form an obstructive bloc. This is what will lead us to the continuation of such attacks.” This strategy, consistent with past efforts to stoke fear about Arab participation in the political process, is not about Tibi specifically, but is a dog whistle meant to delegitimize the Arab parties and voters.

In his Channel 12 interview this week, on the eve of his departure for Washington D.C., Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, consistent with Likud’s campaign so far, framed the elections as a “a choice [between] the government that has brought the best situation in the history of the state of Israel in every aspect, that I have delivered, alongside my colleagues in the Likud, or [a] left-wing government led by Yair Lapid as prime minister, which relies on Meretz and the Arab parties that support terror.”

Meanwhile, Avigdor Lieberman, head of the the Israel Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home) has released a series of campaign videos meant to portray Arab MKs as terrorists. The first contains footage of Ahmed Tibi glorifying martyrdom. On Wednesday, the campaign released an official video in which an actor dressed as if to appear as a Palestinian terrorist announces: “Today I am embarking on the mission of my life to restore my people’s honor. Today I start the next intifada from within and join the Knesset of Israel.” A sober Lieberman addresses the viewer to say: “When members of Knesset aid and abet the enemies of Israel they are terrorists [from within].”

Chairperson of Meretz, Tamar Zandberg, criticized not only the right for its delegitimization of the Arab parties, but also the “silence of the center.” She criticized both Kachol Lavan (Blue and White) and the Labor Party for not being able to “find room for an Arab candidate” on their lists, and for refusing to consider the prospect of Jewish-Arab political partnership, even at a time, after the passage of the nation-state law, when such cooperation seems so imperative. Zandberg insisted that that question “Will you agree to sit with Arabs in the government and the Knesset” is a racist question. And that the only parties insisting that Israeli Arabs “are equal” are coming from Meretz and from Rotem Sela, the Israeli model and actress who criticized Prime Minister Netanyahu in a viral Instagram post insisting that “Israel is a country for all its citizens. And every person was born equal. Arabs, too, God help us, are human beings…

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

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 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 Vanguard) movement to aid in the election of right wing parties. Investigative work and spokesmanship by the Headquarters led MK Stav Shafir (Labor) presenting 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.

Meanwhile, researchers at the Big Bots Project noticed that a candidate on the party list began tracking hundreds of Twitter profiles days after they opened; In a petition he submitted to the Elections Committee, Attorney Ben-Meir demands that the profiles be revealed as workers on behalf of the party: Candidate on the New Right list is using a network of hundreds of false accounts on Twitter. A petition filed yesterday last week to the Central Elections Committee election by attorney Shahar Ben Meir held that Anat Tzipkin Avivi, number 17 on the New Right list headed by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked utilized nearly 400 false accounts. The network of ‘bots’ was discovered by researchers Noam Rotem and Yuval Adam, of the Big Bots project. Ben Meir asked the Central Elections Committee require all accounts to identify themselves as promoting official campaign propaganda in the service of the party.