JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed on Monday in a bid to have cameras installed at Israeli voting stations, but seized on the legislative defeat to hone accusations his foes intend to steal next week’s election.
Echoing Donald Trump in his winning presidential run in 2016, Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud party, has turned possible voter fraud into a central theme of his own campaign in a tightly contested race.
He has implored supporters to flock to the ballot box to ensure him a fifth term amid largely unproven allegations by Likud officials of widespread fraud at polling stations in Arab towns in the previous, inconclusive election in April.
A day after Netanyahu’s cabinet approved draft legislation for camera monitoring, the proposed bill was voted down in committee in parliament on Monday.
Most Western countries have restrictions on the use of cameras in ballot stations, and political commentators had predicted a rough ride for the measure.
Israel’s attorney-general, who will hear Netanyahu’s appeal two weeks after the Sept. 17 election against his intention to indict him in three corruption cases, opposed the draft legislation on privacy and procedural grounds.
But the proposal, which critics said was aimed at intimidating Arab voters, brought Netanyahu’s electoral fraud accusations to the forefront of a fight for political survival that has been marked by daily leaks of police interrogations of witnesses against him.
It also gave Netanyahu, who denies any criminal wrongdoing, a fresh chance to paint his strongest opponents to the right and center as left-wingers who offer no real alternative to any of his supporters who may be wavering.
Those politicians are in lockstep with Arab factions alarmed by the draft legislation, said Netanyahu, in office for the past decade. Arabs make up 21 percent of Israel’s population and have traditionally voted for Arab and left-wing Jewish parties.
Both former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman of the nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party and Benny Gantz, head of the centrist Blue and White party, came out against voting station video monitoring. Opinion polls show Likud and Blue and White running neck and neck, and increased support for Lieberman.
“There is no reason for those who really want pure elections to oppose the Camera Law that prevents election fraud,” Netanyahu said in a video statement after the committee vote.
“What is particularly disappointing is that Lieberman has joined the left-wing and the Arab parties. So I only have one answer to all those who want to (avoid) fraudulent and stolen the elections: come en masse and vote for Likud.”
Accusing Netanyahu of “dealing in conspiracies”, Gantz said in public remarks that “sanity has won”. Lieberman said only Election Committee monitors, not “Netanyahu’s private militia”, should be in charge of any cameras in polling stations.
On election days in Israel, representatives of most parties sit at venues to check the pre-vote identification process. Voters are then handed an envelope and go behind a screen to insert a paper ballot with a party’s name on it.
Ayman Odeh, head of the Arab Joint List party, welcomed “Likud’s loss (as) a victory for Arab citizens” but said the defeat in parliament could play into Netanyahu’s self-portrayal as a potential victim of a feared crooked election.
“He can say the Arabs and the media and the whole world are against him,” Odeh told reporters.
Editing by Mark Heinrich