Tearing a page from the Trump 2016 campaign playbook, the Likud Party is engaged in large-scale voter suppression against the Israeli Palestinian minority.
Previously, the Party tabled a bill that would install video cameras in Palestinian polling places in order to stop a problem that doesn’t exist–voter fraud. Of course, there was no suggestion of installing such cameras in polling stations in Jewish communities. That bill never made it into law, though not for lack of trying.
Now, as the election nears in a few days, the Likud has rolled out an entirely new method reminiscent of the moves by Russia’s Internet Research Agency, which showered Facebook with ads fueled by messages of racial violence and hate which were engineered to suppress the votes of Democrats, particularly in African-American communities. Likud is doing the same.
Israel’s leading Arabic-language news portal, Panet is being flooded with pro-Likud political ads and flattering coverage. But there is a corresponding campaign to discourage Palestinian voting: a series of billboard-type ads attacking the Palestinian Joint List, an alliance of four major parties which has had success in the past few elections. Despite such success, there is an accompanying movement for Palestinians to boycott the Israeli political system, since it is designed to silence, rather than empower them. Thus, it is easy for the Likud to assume the identity of such hoaxers and advance their message, while having an entirely different purpose.
The more votes the Joint List gets, the more seats it wins in Knesset, the lower the chances Netanyahu will be the next PM. If Palestinian parties actually won seats proportional to the percentage of the overall population the Jewish parties would have no choice but to invite them into governing coalitions and apportion powerful ministerial portfolios to them. This is an outcome the far-right not only abhors, but it uses the very potential for such a coalition as a cudgel to beat the Blue and White Party over the head.
While Israeli Jewish voters are locked into their political choices and vote in large, consistent numbers. The percentage of Palestinian voter participation is not only lower–it can fluctuate widely depending on the urgency of the issues. A mass movement to the polls by this sector could run the Likud out of office.
To prevent such Joint List gains, if it can’t persuade Palestinians to vote Likud, then it must persuade them to stay away from the voting booth entirely. That’s why the ads attacking the List use the Arabic phrase for “Nothing.” In other words: what has the List done for you? Nothing. In an interview Netanyahu also gave to Panet, he harps relentlessly on the message that the List has done nothing for its voters.
Never mind that the PM himself has done less than nothing for members of the Palestinian community. He has relentlessly targeted them as enemies of the state, warned that they intended to take over the state, etc. The idea that Netanyahu has the right to criticize the Joint List when his own failures are so glaring, is ludicrous. Not to mention that the chief reason the Palestinian Party has not achieved the results it sought, is that it is routinely shut out of major Knesset deliberations and denied funding for projects in its communities. In addition, Palestinian MKs are routinely treated as criminals–investigated by police, thrown into prison, driven into exile, and threatened with death.
An Israeli liberal opposition research group, Ha-Bloc (aka The Democratic Bloc) has been tracking social media platforms for similar negative efforts to depress the Palestinian vote. It uncovered 30 different fake Arabic-language Facebook accounts largely focussed on posting hostile content in the timelines of Joint List MKs. Here’s an example:
“Stop humiliating yourself,” one of the profiles wrote on Odeh’s page. “When someone says they don’t want you and don’t want your support, how do you expect to replace [Netanyahu]. Gantz also doesn’t want you or your party and agrees to the deal of the century. You’ll hear from me that your only concerned with getting as many seats as you can in the Knesset so you can get money. When it comes to politics, the truth is that you and your party are out of the political game.”
You’ll notice that the issues raised by the fake accounts reflect genuine frustration among the Palestinian community. But instead of suggesting methods to change the system, they simply exploit an existing grievance in order to subvert any chance for Israeli Palestinians to ever achieve political power. A truly vicious, cynical circle.
Facebook naturally had not taken any measures against such fraudulent activity even though it violates the platform’s terms of service. In the September election, the Block identified 80 such fake accounts which Facebook also removed. One wonders why Facebook isn’t able to police its own site and identify these hoaxes themselves? Instead, it waits for an NGO to do its work for it.
Though the Israeli NGO did not say who or what was behind this effort, given everything else you’ve read here, it seems clear that this is the work of the Likud, either through its direct involvement or that of social-media hacks hired to do such dirty work.
Such a voter suppression strategy precisely mirrors that of Trump in 2016: to rip to shreds any sense of communal consensus or solidarity. To atomize society, driving a wedge between ethnic groups; instilling fear and loathing of The Other. Into such a maelstrom steps the Strong Leader, the Essential One who brings everyone to heel and restores the natural order. To Netanyahu’s and Trump’s minds that is them. They are the Irreplaceable Ones without whom all would be chaos.
It is a deeply cynical strategy designed to offer short term benefits by maintaining them in power, at the price of tearing asunder institutions and values that have held society together over generations and enabled it to achieve the success it has.
But Likud isn’t entirely going negative: given its interest in playing up its bromance with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sultan, a senior Party MK has also taken to Panet, suggesting that Netanyahu lobby the Saudis for direct flights from Israel to Mecca so that Israeli Muslims may perform their religious hajj obligation in convenience. How thoughtful. I doubt any Israeli Palestinian is going to flock to the Likud because it’s become a Muslim-friendly Party. But the beauty of this gimmick is that it allows the far-right to claim affinity with Muslim voters, while its real interest in touting to its Jewish citizens and the rest of the world its strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia.
Panet also celebrated Netanyahu with a profile featuring a Likud MK extolling the PM’s close relations with various Arab leaders including those of Saudi Arabia and Oman. While the Likud flattered Panet with its attention, Panet flattered the far-right Jewish Party, one hand cynically washing the other.