What to Watch in Israeli Democracy: Week of February 21

An update by Harry Reis, New Israel Fund US Director of Policy and Strategy

NIFC 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.

Israel’s election is less than two weeks away, and the final countdown to the March 2 election has begun.

So what are the campaigns saying?

The campaign of the ruling Likud Party has focused on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s international achievements. He has emphasized his relationship with President Donald Trump and his tangible victories for the Israeli right, such as the unilateral US exit from the Iran nuclear deal and Trump’s plan to greenlight annexation in the West Bank.

As in past rounds, Netanyahu is also framing a vote for his rival, former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, as a ‘vote for the Arabs.’ In an interview with Channel 20 Netanyahu said: “When you vote for Benny Gantz, you are voting for one of the two: either a government that relies on the support of Ahmed Tibi, Ayman Odeh and the Joint List, or for a return to a fourth election.” While Gantz’s Blue and White Party may have a lead in the polls, Netanyahu is arguing that right-wing bloc is closer to a 61-seat majority. His hope is that these missing mandates will be delivered up by the 300,000 Likud voters who stayed at home in September.

With the date for Netanyahu’s corruption trial set for two weeks after the election, Blue and White has attempted to narrow the debate to a single question: whether an incumbent prime minister indicted for crimes of corruption is fit to serve as prime minister. Gantz said it this way, “The prime minister must be completely devoted to the country’s most important issues. He must be unencumbered, focused and freed of any other interests. [A prime minister cannot] be in charge of the country in parallel to being on trial for three criminal cases.”

Blue and White has chosen not to distinguish itself from its rival over substantive policy issues. On the matter of Jewish-Arab cooperation, Gantz has not explicitly refuted Netanyahu’s argument that a government relying on the support of Arab-majority parties would be illegitimate. Instead, he has denied that his government will form such a government, largely accepting Netanyahu’s premise. Unlike the Meretz-Labor-Gesher Party, whose leader Amir Peretz clarified he would have no problem forming a center-left government with the external support of the Joint List, Gantz has said: “There are serious disagreements between the Joint List and myself in all that pertains to the political, national and security issues of the State of Israel….My disagreements with its leadership only about the national and security aspects are deep, sharp and impossible to bridge.”

For its part, the Joint List, led by Ayman Odeh, has also drawn a line in the sand. After the last election, MK Ayman Odeh crossed a political rubicon by recommending that Gantz be tasked by Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin to form the government. But in light of Blue and White’s embrace of Trump’s annexation proposal — which “contemplated” stripping citizenship from 260,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel — Odeh’s stance became more complicated. Odeh made clear that the Joint List could “under no circumstance” support Gantz without his decisive denunciation of the “transfer” aspect of Trump’s plan, which is the equivalent of ethnic cleansing by gerrymander. Gantz did so, saying in an interview that ethnic transfer was off “the agenda” and, stressing that “no Israeli citizen, Jew or Arab, will be transferred forcefully to any other country.”

Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Liberman is again positioning himself as kingmaker in between the right-wing and center-left blocs. He will not rule out the possibility of sitting in a government with Labor-Gesher-Meretz.

Based on current polling, Gantz is in a bind. On his own, Gantz and his allies are unlikely to garner enough seats to form a government. And assuming the Likud Party remains committed to Netanyahu, Gantz will not join the Likud to form a unity government. Gantz’s only path to the premiership would be a minority government, that would rely on both Avigdor Lieberman, a right wing politician who has in the past promoted the concept of population transfer, as well as the Joint List’s support from outside a government. While Lieberman has said he won’t rule out being part of such a coalition, this remains an elusive challenge for Gantz, and an unlikely conclusion to Israel’s political drama.

For the last several months, the polls have been largely stable, not showing any major shifts between the blocs. What was true in September remains true today: no bloc — neither right nor left — has the strength alone to muster a governing coalition of 61 Knesset seats. This is the fundamental roadblock that has stymied prior attempts to form a government and has led to the current stalemate. While the official start of Netanyahu’s corruption trial on March 17 may reshuffle the cards, we cannot rule out the possibility of a fourth election.

5 THINGS TO WATCH

DEMOCRACY & THE RULE OF LAW

1. Date set for Netanyahu’s trial
A date has been set for the official opening of the corruption trial against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: March 17. The date falls two weeks after Israelis cast their votes on March 2, and a day after that new Knesset will be sworn-in. This means that the Israeli public will see an incumbent prime minister seated in the defendant’s dock as he strives to make the case to Israel’s president that he should be tasked with forming the next government.

On March 17, Netanyahu is required to physically be present in court as the indictment is formally read into the record. A panel of three judges, helmed by Rivka Friedman-Feldman, a Jerusalem District Court judge, will preside over Netanyahu’s corruption trial. Friedman-Feldman previously presided over the corruption trial that convicted former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who this week, petitioned Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin to expunge his criminal record.

2. Defense Minister Naftali Bennet orders the release of Jewish extremist
Interim Defense Minister Naftali Bennet, of the far right Yamina (Rightward) Party, canceled the administrative detention order of a 19-year-old Jewish extremist Eliya Ben David, following political pressure exerted by right-wing MKs and activists. Israel’s domestic security agency, the Shin Bet, which is responsible for combatting Jewish extremism, criticized the move in a rare public rebuke.

Israel’s Channel 12 News quoted a Shin Bet source as saying that Defense Minister Bennet’s “decision to cancel the detention order… lends support to extremist activities on the ground,” warning that the move risks a repeat of the 2015 firebomb attack in Duma, which left three Palestinian members of the Dawabshe family dead, including 18-month-old Ali Dawabsheh. Shin Bet sources say that the detention was based on “high-quality intelligence” that Ben David posed an imminent threat.

Administrative detention is a legal practice, based in the original British Emergency Regulations (and incorporated into Israeli law in 1979), that allows the state to arrest and hold in detention individuals without charge or trial. Administrative detention is routinely used against Palestinians in the West Bank, but rarely against Israeli citizens. Israeli civil liberties groups view the practice as a violation of the due process of law.

SHARED SOCIETY AND EQUAL CITIZENSHIP

3. Israel’s LGBT Task Force blames homophobia in politics for the steep rise in reported anti-LGBTQ hate crimes.

According to a new report by The Aguda: Israel’s LGBT Task Force , there were 2,125 anti-LGBTQ incidents reported in Israel last year, an increase of 36% over the previous year. The report points to two moments in particular: the campaign launch of the anti-LGBT NOAM Party before the April 2019 election, and a spike in online anti-LGBTQ incidents in August, the month after interim Education Minister Rafi Peretz made incendiary anti-LGBT comments.

The Aguda chairperson Hila Peer and CEO Ohad Hizki attributed this rise in homophobic incidents to developments in the public sphere. “This reality doesn’t come out of nowhere — there are those who choose to feed it.” According to their statement, “It grows stronger when Israel’s Education Minister wants to convert [by endorsing the practice of conversion therapy] an entire part of society.”

4. Ayelet Shaked appeals to farmer vote by demonizing foreign workers
Former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the Yamina Party appeared in a television ad filmed during a visit to Ein Yahav, a moshav, or agricultural cooperative, in the Arava Valley. Shaked was appealing to the votes of Israeli farmers, seen as increasingly unaffiliated by party. Holding a bell pepper, she promised to end Israeli farmers’ responsibility to pay into pension plans for their foreign workers. “Israel’s farmers are collapsing under the burden of illegal workers… We in Yamina promise to change the conditions [by] canceling the pensions.” She went on to ask, “Why should farmers have to pay pension[s] for workers, when in their home countries there is no pension? They earn five times more than they do in their home countries.”

Figures from the Israeli labor organization Worker’s Hotline — Kav LaOved, estimate that approximately 24,600 migrant workers in Israel are employed in the agricultural sector. According to Israeli law, foreign workers are entitled to the same employment rights as an Israeli employee, including protection from exploitation. Foreign agricultural workers in Israel are currently entitled to a monthly pension payment from their employer.

DEMOCRACY & THE RULE OF LAW

5. Leak of Israeli voter data and privacy in elections
For the second time in the span of a week, a software firm contracted by the Likud Party has leaked the private data of Israel’s entire registry of 6,453,254 eligible voters. While initially, Feed-b, the software firm responsible for the leak, described the breach as a “one-off incident,” a second breach this week has raised concerns over data security in Israel’s election. The “Elector” app was designed to allow political parties to use voter registration information to send text-messages to voters to drive up voter engagement and turnout. Investigative reporting from The Marker and by Israeli media watchdog The Seventh Eye, have argued that the app constitutes a violation of Israel’s privacy and election laws.

A petition to Israel’s Central Elections Commission to prevent Likud from using the app was rejected and is currently being appealed to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud Party, despite the privacy concerns, continue to encourage voters to download the application.

Journalists who broke the story discovered that, in the source code for the Elector app, anyone could find the password and login app as an administrator. This meant that the full Israeli voter registry — names, ID numbers, and phone numbers — were immediately accessible to anyone. Details that Likud party operatives had entered into the system about individual voter preferences were also available, which raised concerns that public access to these records could lead to discrimination. Israel’s Basic Law: Elections requires that voting for the Knesset elections is by secret ballot.

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