What to Watch in Israeli Democracy: Week of September 13

13 September 2019

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: When the Levee Breaks

NIF Issues in Play

A Note from Michal Sella: When the Levee Breaks

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

The issue dominating Israel’s headlines the week before these fateful elections is the most basic aspect of democratic government: the legitimacy of the electoral process itself. If in 2015, “Arabs are going to the polls in droves” was the race-baiting theme of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s campaign, in 2019, “Arabs are stealing the election” is the updated version. It is clearly designed to stoke racial fears in order to mobilize right-wing voters.

In the final weeks leading up to the elections, Netanyahu and the Likud party are pushing the message that Israel’s electoral process itself is untrustworthy by claiming that there is widespread voter fraud in the Arab Israeli community. The facts show no such thing. The only instances of election fraud investigated in the last elections were at polling stations where Likud and ultra-Orthodox parties preveiled–not the Arab-majority parties.

Faced with the potent campaign alleging voter fraud being promoted by Likud, Blue and White has turned its focus to matters of religion and state. Party leader Benny Gantz now promises a “secular” unity government — one which excludes the ultra-Orthodox and national religious parties. He is offering Israelis a “restoration of normalcy” – a return to democracy and statesmanship. Lieberman, the Chairman of Yisrael Beiteinu — the erstwhile king-maker–is focusing his campaign on forcing a unity government and seeking to appeal to secular right-wing voters by concentrating his messaging against the ultra-Orthodox parties. Labor-Gesher, which risks dropping below the electoral threshold, repeatedly promises that it will not sit in a government with Netanyahu. It has faced challenges delivering a clear agenda or effectively influencing public discourse, as has the newly formed Democratic Union.

The Arab-majority parties are focused on boosting turnout — despite the heavy campaign to demoralize and delegitimize Arab political participation led by the Prime Minister and his party. They are working to stave off efforts to intimidate and suppress Arab voters, like Likud’s ill-fated “cameras law,” which the ruling party tried — (and failed) to ram through the Knesset. The main objective of that law was to change the rules of the electoral system by allowing parties to use surveillance technologies at polling stations. Much like voter suppression tactics in the United States, this campaign sold a lie of widespread fraud in elections. Its goal was clear: to suppress voting among minority communities while driving out the voting among the Likud base. How? By invoking the specter of Arab citizens “stealing the election”.

Though the cameras bill was not passed into law, the narrative Netanyahu created around the law still hangs in the air. And a lie once spread is difficult to roll back. That is why it is so dangerous for leaders to spread mistruths deliberately in the first place. Indeed, there is mounting concern that on Election Day, party activists might take the law into their own hands to enforce the “purity of elections” through vigilante efforts to intimidate voters at polling stations in Arab municipalities. There have already been several instances of violence targeting Blue and White and Democratic Union party activists.

Beyond that, the damage of this campaign lies in the diminished public trust in the integrity of the democratic process and the fairness of democratic elections. This cannot be overstated. Netanayhu is preparing the ground to claim that the elections were illegitimate in the event that he does not emerge victorious. That is dangerous territory. Americans know well the danger of such populist agitation against democratic norms.

No one knows how these elections will turn out. But what we know now is that according to the polls today, no bloc — neither right nor left — independently has the capacity to form a stable governing coalition of 61 Knesset seats. What is clear is that this short repeat election has managed to deepen the rifts between various populations in Israel–between secular and religious Jews, right and left, and between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel. But the day after election day, when the heat of the campaign is lower, Israelis will have a democracy that fewer people trust. This is the clearest and most present danger to our basic democratic life and liberty in Israel.

Michal Sella
Director, Shatil Center for Policy Change

NIF Issues in Play


Netanyahu’s Pledge to Annex the Jordan Valley

On September 10, Prime Minister Netanyahu, reportedly against the strenuous objection of by the IDF chief of staff and Shin Bet director, held a press conference in Jerusalem in which he announced his intention to extend Israeli sovereignty over a large portion of the West Bank immediately following the election. The Prime Minister asked the Israeli public for a mandate to begin annexation of the Jordan Valley immediately following the elections — followed by the annexation of all Israeli settlements after the Trump Administration presents its own plan.

Netanyahu boasted that Israel would annex the Jordan Valley and North Dead Sea areas, an area comprising nearly a quarter of the West Bank, “without annexing a single Palestinian.” The map that Netayahu used showed an area that includes, according to data from the Defense Ministry’s Civil Administration:

  • 8,775 Palestinians who reside in the area;
  • roughly 62,000 acres in the area are privately owned Palestinian land.

Reactions to the Prime Minister’s announcement included:

  1. Criticism from Israel’s left-wing and Arab-majority parties alongside warnings from foreign leaders, including broad condemnation from Arab states, the European Union, and the Russian Federation, which warned that it could “lead to a sharp escalation of tension in the region and undermine hopes for the establishment of a long-awaited peace.”
  2. Praise as well as pressure from pro-annexation right-wing parties to undertake immediate implementation of Netanyahu’s annexation proposal.
  3. While the centrist Blue and White party did not openly criticize the Prime Minister’s plan itself, they characterized it as political spin: “It is not real. He had 13 years to do it, and he didn’t do it…It is interesting that he decided to do it now of all times.”

Blue and White and Democratic Union have complained to the Central Elections Commission that Netanyahu’s announcement was an abuse of Israeli election laws, since the Prime Minister used the occasion to broadcast live on Israeli media political content that may not be broadcast during elections season. Previous complaints had related to the Prime Minister’s filming at military installations which are prohibited by Israeli election law. The Central Elections Committee ruled in favor of the Democratic Union and Blue and White ordering Likud to pay a penalty.

Read: Here’s what the Israeli public thinks about Netanyahu’s campaign promise to annex parts of the West Bank, by Dahlia Scheindlin (Washington Post)

A Tale of Two Visits: Elkana and Hebron

Prior to Netanyahu’s Jordan Valley annexation announcement, on the first day of September, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu visited a religious school in the settlement of Elkana to reiterate his commitment to apply “Jewish sovereignty” to all West Bank settlements and not to evict a single settler as part of an agreement with the Palestinians.

  • The Prime Minister said: “We are building new homes. This new home is the old and original home of the Jewish people and we will build another Elkana. We won’t uproot anyone. There won’t be another Gush Katif [the settlement bloc in Gaza which was evacuated in 2005], there won’t be any more uprooting and, with God’s help, we’ll apply Jewish sovereignty over all the settlements, which are part of the Land of Israel and the State of Israel. This is our land.”

Reactions Across the Political Spectrum

  • Chairman of the Democratic Union, Nitzan Horowitz visited Hebron himself, sending a divergent message from that of the prime minister: “I came to Hebron, the capital of the Kahanism, to say to Bibi: ‘These are the Kahanists you want in the Knesset? These are the racists you want to make a government with? Today you have come to the most explosive place to insert Kahanism into your campaign.”

  • Labor-Gesher Chairman Amir Peretz said: “Netanyahu is a danger to the Zionist and democratic vision and, for the sake of narrow political interests, he is willing to integrate two million Palestinians who will be given social rights at the expense of the state, and in the end, will have the right to vote for the Knesset.”
  • MK Yair Lapid (Blue and White) on Twitter: “Netanyahu began the school year with an announcement that he wants to annex 2.9 million Palestinians, to give them social security benefits, and next year, to pay for their children’s education.”
  • Former prime minister Ehud Barak (Democratic Union): “The alliance between Netanyahu and the extremists has been exposed. To avoid going to jail, he is willing to annex millions of Palestinians. That is the way to either a bi-national state with a Muslim majority or to Jewish apartheid in Judea and Samaria. It is the end to the Zionist enterprise. Israel’s future is in separation, not in annexation.”
  • Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh: “Netanyahu…pushes the State of Israel into committing war crimes [annexation] that will cause the deaths of innumerable Palestinians and Israelis.”
  • MK Ahmed Tibi (Joint List) said: “Netanyahu is leading the region toward a conflagration. The annexation of the occupied territories is an offense and a violation of international law. Only ending the occupation will give hope for a future to all of us. On the eve of the elections, Netanyahu…is sentencing the region to disaster.”

By contrast, the prime minister’s commitment was welcomed by colleagues on the right.

  • Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud) said: “The vision is for a million Jews to live in Samaria under the full sovereignty of the State of Israel. That is where we are headed, and that is where will get to.”
  • Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (Likud) said: “Applying sovereignty is our historic right and also sends an important message to all the terror organizations that wish to undermine our presence throughout the Land of Israel.”


The anniversary of the 1929 Hebron massacre, a historical event of central importance within settler ideology, is a trauma often used to justify settlement expansion. Benjamin Netanyahu used the occasion to visit the West Bank city of Hebron, in his first official visit to the city since 1998. Hebron, a holy city for Jews and Muslims, is home to a community of fewer than six hundred Israeli settlers, protected by a force of hundreds of IDF soldiers,live among over 200,000 Palestinians.

  • In Netanyahu’s speech, the Prime Minister declared that “Hebron will never be cleansed of Jews…We are not strangers in Hebron. We will remain here forever.”

During the last 2019 elections, Hebron’s vote (though numerically small and significant only symbolically) was split between the far right Union of Right Wing Parties (which included the Kahanist Otmza Yehudit faction), which won a supermajority of Hebron’s votes, and the Zehut party of Moshe Feiglin and the New Right party of Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennet. Netanyahu’s visit can be understood as an attempt to court the votes of the parties to Likud’s right.


Delegitimization of Arab Political Participation

During the election earlier this year, Likud dispatched 1,200 operatives to place hidden cameras and recording equipment at polling stations in Arab towns. Likud justified its voter intimidation tactic by making unsubstantiated claim of widespread voter fraud. The practice was prohibited by Israel’s Central Elections Commission.

Yet, after the repeat elections were called for September, the Likud party doubled the budget for its voter suppression operation targeting Arab localities. Civil rights groups called on the Central Election Commission to prohibit this illegal practice. Its chairman, Justice Hanan Melcer, ruled that Likud or any other political party was prohibited from using surveillance cameras. Likud charged forward anyway, pursuing special legislation to skirt the ruling.

Likud’s last-ditch effort to pass legislation changing Israel’s election laws days before the vote was met with forceful objection from those charged with defending the rule of law: Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, Hanan Melcer, and the Knesset Legal Adviser. It ultimately failed to garner a majority in the Knesset. Notwithstanding the setback, the campaign achieved its objective: spreading the message that Israel’s Arab voters were “stealing our election.”

Israel: Central Elections Committee Issues Rules for Recording and Photographing at Polling Stations on Election Day (Library of Congress)

Standing Up to Likud’s Voter Suppression: An Interview with Raluca Ganea, by Libby Lenkinski (Jewish Currents)

Why American Jews should care about voter suppression in Israel, by Mickey Gitzin (JTA)

Why Bibi Fears Arab Voters, by Yardena Schwartz (New York Review of Books)

This campaign of voter intimidation is part of a broader campaign of delegitimization of Arab political participation. The Likud party’s last election campaign hinged on the demonization of Arab parties and leaders. This time around, Netanyahu has doubled down on that message, stoking fear among voters of a government that includes Arabs. Netanyahu has used the “cameras law” fight to spread panic over alleged “election fraud” by Arab parties, claiming that Arabs “are stealing our elections.” Netanyahu’s Communications Minister David Amsalem, has referred to evidence of election fraud on a “huge” scale, despite the fact that this claim is unsubstantiated and openly refuted by Israel’s authorities.

Netanyahu Accuses Rivals of Plotting to ‘Steal’ Israeli Election, by Isabel Kershner (New York Times)

Fact Check: Netanyahu’s Fake News on Arab Voter Fraud, by Jonathan Lis, Chaim Levinson and Josh Breiner (Haaretz}

The Israeli Election – Through the Eyes of Palestinians Who Can’t Vote, by Hagar Shezaf and Judy Maltz (Haaretz)

Gender Equality

The battle between an ultra-Orthodox Jewish and a secular, egalitarian ethos within Israeli society has emerged full force in Israel’s political arena in these elections. This fight is being waged over the issue of women’s role in the public sphere, pitting hardline interpretations of Jewish law that mandates gender separation against legal protections from discrimination against women.

Last month, the Attorney General’s office published a legal opinion permitting gender segregation at a state-funded cultural event in the northern Israeli city of Afula — contrary to legal precedent. The High Court ruling barring this practice was handed down only after the event had already begun.

Just a week later, a new controversy broke out on the heels of this decision over the matter of allowing gender segregation in higher education. At issue is the expansion of sex segregation in publicly-funded graduate programs in the plan put forward by Prof. Yaffa Zilbershatz, chairwoman of the Israel Council for Higher Education’s Planning and Budgeting Committee. This plan reduces oversight of these programs by the Council of gender separation and nondiscrimination against female students and teachers.

Read: The core electoral issue is women’s rights. Here’s why. by Naomi Chazan (Times of Israel)

Israel’s New Iron Lady Wants Women to Sit in the Back of the Bus. She Should Be the First, by Zehava Galon (Haaretz)

United Torah Judaism (UTJ), an ultra-Orthodox party, released a video this week depicting those demanding gender equality in the public sphere as a threat to children. Personifying secular-Reform Israeli using a homophobic charicature, UTJ sought to stoke fears of secular Israelis forcing ultra-Orthodox to conform to cultural norms.