Israeli town’s elections cause uproar in Parliament

Parties in governing coalition accuse each other of promoting voter fraud, arm-twisting

Miki Haimovich (left) and Osnat Mark (right) (photo credit: KNESSET)
Miki Haimovich (left) and Osnat Mark (right)
(photo credit: KNESSET)
In a controversy reminiscent of the recent US presidential election, Israel’s parliament came close to crisis this week over the proposed use in a town council contest of mobile voting booths for coronavirus patients – something one party says would be a recipe for fraud.
Tel Mond, a quiet central town of slightly more than 13,000, is scheduled to hold municipal council elections on Tuesday.
The parliament’s Internal Affairs and Environment Committee was considering an amendment on Monday to authorize the use of portable polling stations for voters who are ill with COVID-19 and cannot leave their homes. This will be the first time any Israeli voters go to the polls since the pandemic’s outbreak in early March.
Yet what was expected to be a rather ho-hum committee session soon turned into an all-out brawl on a move that could set a precedent for national elections.
Members of the right-wing Likud party protested what they said was an attempted coup by committee chairwoman Miki Haimovich, a lawmaker from the centrist Blue and White party. The parties have bickered frequently and dominate a governing coalition that may be heading for a divorce.
The Likud members said Blue and White was trying to set a dangerous precedent that would enable them to steal future national elections.
Many in parliament say that another round of general elections, the fourth in two years, is imminent. With the two parties constantly at each other’s throats and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, of the Likud, and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, of Blue and White, unable to agree on just about anything, elections are more a question of “when” than “if.”
“This is an attempted coup! Who do you think you are? You’re trying to steal the elections!” Likud MP Osnat Mark screamed at Haimovich during Monday’s committee session.
“I strongly resent these insinuations and accusations, trying to attribute any dishonest intentions to me and my friends,” Haimovich said before ejecting Mark from the room.
Shlomo Karai, a Likud committee member who agreed with Mark, presented his case to The Media Line following the contentious session.
“Once there is a portable voting station that travels from house to house, that’s a surefire recipe for fraud,” he said.
“Forget the local elections in Tel Mond,” he continued. “It’s a precedent for the general [elections], when there’ll be hundreds that wander around the country in cars that we can’t monitor.”
During the meeting, Karai and his colleagues said it was true that portable voting booths have been in use in Israel for years, allowing military personnel stationed in army bases and hospital patients, among others, to cast their ballots.
“That’s different,” said Karai, in his call with The Media Line. “We have no choice in those cases, and it’s small-scale anyway. There are protections in place. We’re talking thousands of these” in a general election.
Unlike the United States, Israel has never allowed voting by mail, and suggestions made by lawmakers to allow quarantined patients to mail in their ballots was quickly shot down as impractical.
While Blue and White lawmakers said they were merely complying with a request by the Interior Ministry to find a way to allow COVID-19 patients to vote, Likud MPs said the proposal was hurriedly pushed through by their political rivals.
“This specific amendment was their doing,” Karai said, adding that he and his Likud colleagues were not present at the previous session when there was an agreement on the proposal’s language.
Yet, sources close to Haimovich, the committee chairwoman, said they believe the right-wing party, which has controlled the government for more than a decade, had ulterior motives.
“[The Likud] is talking crap. This isn’t about election integrity; this amendment wouldn’t have changed a thing. This was about the Likud not wanting coronavirus patients to vote,” a close aide to Haimovich, who asked not to be identified, told The Media Line.
“This comes straight from the top, from Bibi,” the aide said, calling Netanyahu by his nickname.
“My assumption is that he thinks there is a concentration of infections in some communities that tend to vote against the Likud, like Arab towns, which are experiencing an uptick lately,” the aide stated. “It has to be something like that.”
Prior to Israel’s previous general elections, Likud lawmakers were accused by opponents of trying to intimidate voters and drive down election-day attendance after introducing a bill mandating every polling station be filmed by representatives of political parties. The measure was defeated days before the September 2019 vote.
The latest controversy was resolved on Tuesday when Parliament Speaker Yariv Levin intervened.
Levin, a close ally of Netanyahu, brokered what Likud members called “a reasonable compromise.” Several opposition MPs later accused him of “arm twisting and unveiled threats.”
The committee agreed that instead of driving portable polls to people’s homes, special vehicles would take these voters to isolated polling stations.
“That wasn’t a compromise; I got exactly what I asked for,” Karai said. “Miki [Haimovich] came to me and told me, ‘We decided to accept your objections and change the law.’”
The affair seemed to echo the controversy in the United States, where allegations of voter fraud, absentee-ballot shenanigans and mail-in voting impropriety have dominated headlines for the past two weeks.
US President Donald Trump, who was defeated by President-elect Joe Biden, has persisted in his claims of massive Democratic cheating ever since the election, and the majority of the Republican Party has supported him despite a lack of evidence of foul play.
Karai said the events in the US played a role in his party’s views about the mobile voting booths.
“Even without that, we would’ve insisted [on retracting the portable polls amendment], but when you hear of mass fraud and problems with voting from home, you’re definitely much more vigilant, so that those same things won’t happen here,” he said, adding he believed that Trump was the victim of the Democratic Party's insistence on the widespread use of mail-in voting.
As of Thursday, only 45 Tel Mond residents were in isolation after contracting the coronavirus. The town’s elections will proceed on Tuesday, with residents electing new council members and municipal officials.
When asked about the national scandal they unwittingly initiated, Tel Mond officials were reluctant to join the fray.
“This is a very delicate issue and we didn’t want any part of it,” a spokesperson for the municipality told The Media Line. “We just wanted to ensure that everyone here can vote.”
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