Covering our exclusive Israeli Election Special for The Jewish Weekly is JAMES MARLOW with his report, news briefs and this week’s poll numbers.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has agreed to release his findings and evidence of the three corruption cases against the Prime Minister only after the general election. The decision will also apply to the other suspects in the case. Mandelblit recommended Netanyahu be indicted for bribery, breach of trust and fraud, subject to a hearing.
The investigation materials will be available to the suspect’s individual lawyers, one day after the general election. The pre-indictment hearings will be heard three months later and is expected to be no later than 10 July.
The hearing for the Prime Minister will be conducted by the Attorney General himself while the other suspects will appear before the Tel Aviv District Prosecutor for tax and economic reasons.
But before the announcement was made, at least four polls showed that support for the Blue and White party was dropping, while the Likud is holding steady.
However Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beteinu party and Orly Levy-Abecassis who left Lieberman’s party to form Gesher, both may not cross the threshold.
A real surprise in the polls is former Likud MK Moshe Feiglin, who has spent the last four years in the political wilderness, after finishing in the top 20 in the Likud primaries of 2015 – only to be shoved down to 36th place by Netanyahu, locking him out of the Knesset. Feiglin has since formed his own Zehut party and many polls show he may just cross the line.
His popularity is partly due to his decision to adopt the “legalising cannabis” policy, which was the main goal of the leftist, Green Leaf party, but they decided not to run this time, probably due to financial reasons.
Feiglin was always known as a right wing religious Zionist, opposed to the Oslo agreement, opposed to the Gaza disengagement, but very supportive of settlement building and the annexation of Judea and Samaria. But he has recently become a compatriot in the use of soft drugs and in particular, pot-smoking. In addition, the party manifesto includes Shabbat transportation, civil marriage and selling pig meat across the country.
Netanyahu spared no legal manoeuvres to oust Feiglin from the Likud, but now the thorn in the Prime Minister’s side – who challenged his leadership several times – could reappear in the political arena and perhaps hold the balance of power between Likud or Blue and White.
Netanyahu clearly fears that his old foe could turn out to be trouble, with Israel Hayom, a paper seen as the mouthpiece of the Prime Minister, running a headline reading “Feiglin is dangerous.”
Netanyahu in an online Question and Answer session this week was asked about cannabis to which he replied that he may consider the legalisation of the drug. “I led several changes in this sphere, as we increased the use of medical cannabis. “When we were told there was a world market for it, we allowed growers to increase their production and I turned the sector into a significant export opportunity for the State of Israel.”
In other news, the Prime Minister met with Rabbi Meir Mazuz, the spiritual leader of Eli Yishai, to convince the Yahad party to drop out of the race and avoid the loss of thousands of right-wing votes. All polls show that Yahad will not cross the threshold.
However, the meeting was unsuccessful and Eli Yishai, who has led Yahad since being ousted from the leadership of Shas in 2015, will continue to run for Knesset and will likely take many votes from Shas who are polling between five six seats.
ELECTION FACTS 2019
A great deal has changed in Israel since the first Knesset election took place in 1949 after the war of independence. Back then you had the pioneering spirit and idealism of Zionism, you had the thriving Kibbutzim movement across the country and of course you had Prime Minister David Ben Gurion heading the government.
But one thing that has remained the same is the party ballot slips that a voter chooses when they walk into the blue voting booth on election-day. In front of the voter is a tray of party slips with different Hebrew letters – the voter selects one, places it in the envelope, walks out and places the envelope in the box.
The first Knesset election had 21 parties running and therefore 21 different party slips. At this election, a record 47 parties have registered to run and although one party has dropped out so far, new larger ballot booths had to be constructed to accommodate the larger tray to hold the slips.
In recent days, the Central Elections Committee, (CEC) who has a large warehouse in the city of Modi’in, purchased another 50 tons of paper in order to print enough party ballots for the record breaking number of parties running. The CEC also worked hard to expand the 12,000 voting booths which will be sent to the 4,200 voting sites across Israel. They also need to be checked that each one can be assembled easily.
In addition, 400 million ballot slips have been prepared, which is 140 million more ballots than the 2015 election.
There are 5.8 million eligible voters in the upcoming election which is eight percent more than the 2015 election. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, eighty percent of eligible voters living in Israel are Jewish, sixteen percent are Arab and five per cent are non-Arab, Christian and residents with no religious affiliation. Fourteen percent of eligible voters are aged 18 – 24 years old.
Hundreds of thousands of Israelis live outside the country and although there is no absentee voting cards, Ambassadors, Embassy and Consulate staff are permitted to vote. However, provisions are made for around 400,000 Israelis who are unable to get to a voting station because they are either in hospital or prison or have limited mobility. In Israel, the vote is generally made extremely assessable.
The CEC also has a special department that makes sure soldiers on active duty in the IDF have a vote and facilities are made accessible to them.
Israel is one of a few countries in the world that has one of the highest voter turnouts which is not bad considering trust in politicians in Israel has been declining. In the March 2015 election, there was a 76% voter turnout.
Strict security insures that no boxes are removed from voting booths unless by an official of the CEC and only after the polls have closed at 10 pm. One reason why the party ballot paper has remained after all these years is the avoidance of any technical breakdowns, cyber-attacks or some type of a hack whether from within or outside of the country.
Once the polling stations close, the voting boxes are taken on a journey to the Knesset in Jerusalem where the hand count begins. Results are announced in the early hours with a final confirmation a few days later.
The 250 tons of paper and cardboard left at the polling stations are then recycled and more than one hundred tons of paper at the Knesset are shredded.
Once a new government is in power, the preparation for the next election begins and in Israel an election can come at any time. However after the formation of a government, members are expected to remain in the Knesset for 4 years and a few weeks, depending upon the time the last Knesset dissolved.
Coalitions fall apart for all sorts of reasons but recently, governments have been extremely stable. The longest government was the third Knesset between 1955 and 1959 lasting four years and four months. The second longest is the current government which was elected in 2015.
ELECTION NEWS BRIEFS:
In a fierce speech given by the Blue and White party leader in Beersheva this week, Benny Gantz said “Jabotinsky and Shamir would be ashamed of Netanyahu, but [Meir] Kahana would be proud of him.” Gantz was referring to Netanyahu’s satisfaction that the Jewish Home party voted to join with the far right Otzmah Yehudit, in order to pass the minimum threshold.
Far-right Knesset hopeful, Itamar Ben Gvir, who is a lawyer by profession, filed a NIS 250,000 (£53,000) libel lawsuit against former defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, after he failed to apologise for saying in a radio interview that the Otzma Yehudit candidate could be a Shin Bet security service agent. Ben Gvir who denied the accusation, retorted by suggesting Lieberman, an immigrant to Israel from Moldova in the former Soviet Union, could be a KGB agent. Lieberman told Israel Radio that he was “not a fan” of the far-right party, which joined forces with Jewish Home and National Union to create the Union of Right Wing Parties. “I understand Lieberman is under pressure,” Ben Gvir said in a statement, “he sees the polls, discovers he is not passing the electoral threshold, and understands that his voters are voting en-masse for the Union of Right Wing Parties.”
The Yisrael Beteinu party is experiencing a political crisis as some polls suggest the party will not pass the electoral threshold. But Lieberman hit back and petitioned the Central Elections Committee against pollsters that do not include his party as one of the options and therefore are not giving the correct polling. The public was recently invited to take part in an election survey that did not show Yisrael Beteinu as one of the options. In submitting the petition to the CEC, the party wish to discover who was behind the poll. Lieberman has constantly been dismissive of current polls and argued many surveys also take place online and their results are misleading, because they fail to sample people who do not use the internet.
The Central Elections Committee voted to disqualify Hadash candidate Ofer Kassif and the Israeli-Arab Balad party from running in the election. Kassif was banned on the grounds that he opposes a Jewish and democratic state. Balad was banned on the grounds it is racist. Ofer Kassif has in the past called Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked a neo-Nazi, Prime Minister Netanyahu a mass murderer and that President Rivlin should go to hell. He further called himself an anti-Zionist and recently said Zionism is a racist practice of “Jewish supremacy.” Kassif appealed the decision to the Supreme Court and the answer was expected late Wednesday night just after we went to press.
Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz will deliver one of the key speeches at the annual AIPAC conference in Washington DC later this month. Gantz will speak one day before Netanyahu and is also scheduled to meet with President Trump. Labor head Avi Gabbay announced he will not be attending the conference, preferring to concentrate on the election campaign, but will instead send his number four, Stav Shaffir who will address the audience.
Labor’s Stav Shaffir has been assigned a bodyguard after reportedly receiving threatening messages to her phone, which included: “I will murder you” and “electric shocks to your leftist brain would help.” She became the target of attacks over attempting to have the far-right Otzma Yehudit party banned from running in the election last week. However she told a party gathering last weekend, “I don’t blame the extremists, I blame only Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu” for “encouraging” those who “undermine democracy.” Police arrested an Otzma Yehudit supporter on suspicion of having sent the threats.
In a related matter, the far left-wing Meretz party filed a petition on Tuesday with the High Court of Justice against the two candidates from the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, Michael Ben Ari and Itamar Ben Gvir. The Central Elections Committee last week gave the go ahead that Ben Ari and Ben Gvir could run for Knesset, but Meretz continued to argue that they should be barred from running over incitement to racism.
Staying with Meretz, its chairwoman, Tamar Zandberg met with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah and said forging a peace agreement with the Palestinians is in Israel’s “supreme interest” and that “peace must be at the centre of the election.” Abbas replied by saying it “would respond to any Israeli government ready to negotiate a peace agreement on the basis of the post-Six Day War borders – this is our stance, and we will not move from it.” Still Abbas could not resist attacking Israel’s decision to freeze approximately 5% of its monthly tax transfers to the PA last month, which are the stipends that the Palestinian governing body pays to the families of terrorists. “You have no right to hold our money,” said Abbas. “Israel bears the responsibility for our economic problems, but we will not move from the position of a two-state solution, fighting terrorism and insisting on our right to receive the money.” Meretz appears to be the only party in this election advocating immediate negotiations and a two-state “solution.”
Recently retired IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot, who left active service on January 15, will formally leave the IDF on March 31 instead of January 2020, making him eligible to run in the next election. The law stipulates that officials must wait 3-years or skip one election – whichever comes sooner. By becoming a civilian prior to the April 9 election, Eisenkot is eligible to run in the next election whenever it may be held. By his request, the 21st chief of staff Lt. General will also forfeit his “paid leave,” estimated according to the daily Yediot Ahronot, to be around NIS 300,000 (£64,000). However Eisenkot told a close friend that he has no political plans, but wanted to severe his ties from the army as he heads to Washington to become a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy.
The Central Elections Commission confirmed that retired General Tal Rousso, who was placed in second place on the Labor party list of candidates by leader Avi Gabbay, can run for the Knesset. According to Israeli election law, one must wait three years from the time of leaving the IDF, to run for Knesset. Rousso left the army in January 2014 but returned as a volunteer after Operation Protective Edge, to play a role in reserve duty. The former General subsequently left again in 2017 which raised questions about his status. The Attorney-General, Avichai Mandelblit has already announced Rousso could run, but the final decision was made by Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer.
Pinhas Idan, who was running for Knesset with the Likud and placed at number nineteen on the list, has finally succumbed to pressure and withdrawn his candidacy. Idan remained head of the Israel Airports Authority Industries Labor Union, when he was named as a Likud candidate and according to Supreme Court Justice, Hanan Melcer, who also heads the Central Elections Committee and the Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit – this was “problematic.” Idan was told if he did not quit the race, he would be disqualified from running and this would make it harder for him to return to his previous job, which he has now done so. All those candidates below Idan on the Likud list now automatically move up one slot.
“If I ran in the Israeli elections, I would win 98% of the vote,” US President Donald Trump said at a closed conference with donors to the Republican Party in Florida this week.
By James Marlow