Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the media at the Knesset building in Jerusalem, Dec. 22, 2020. (Photo/JTA-Yonatan Sindel-Flash90)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the media at the Knesset building in Jerusalem, Dec. 22, 2020. (Photo/JTA-Yonatan Sindel-Flash90)

Claims of fraud, a delayed result and fears of insurrection: Israel’s election could look a lot like America’s

Israel is holding yet another election on Tuesday, and voters there are hearing a warning that might sound familiar to Americans:

Don’t expect to know who won on Election Night or even a couple days later. Don’t believe claims of widespread fraud in the days following the vote. And don’t attempt violence to protest the result.

Reading Israeli headlines in recent days, it appears that the Jewish state is determined to suffer some of the same drama that ensnared the presidential election in the U.S. Just like in America, Israeli officials expect a lot of ballots to arrive late because of Covid-19. The final result might not emerge until nearly a week later.

Just like in America, right-wing pundits are spreading baseless warnings of widespread voter fraud and calling on their supporters to watch the polls. And just like in America, the bureaucrats in charge of counting votes say there’s no proof of impending fraud.

“Do you want to help the right wing watch the polls across the country on Election Day, stop fraud and vote-stealing from the left, and make 2000 shekels?” tweeted Yair Netanyahu, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s son and a right-wing online provocateur, on January 28, in a call for Netanyahu’s supporters to sign up as poll workers. Other activists on the right are echoing the warnings of fraud.

One big difference between Israel and the U.S.: In Israel, the right-wing incumbent has pledged to accept the results.

“Of course I’ll accept the results,” Netanyahu said in a recent radio interview, according to the Times of Israel. “What can I do, cry?”

Nevertheless, the Knesset Guard, which polices Israel’s parliament, is preparing for a potential attempted invasion of the legislative building similar to what happened in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6, according to Israeli Channel 13. The guard has trained for an insurrection and set up a special situation room to react to possible threats on Election Day.

Like their American counterparts, right-wing activists have not cited any evidence of widespread fraud or improprieties that could shift the vote. Orly Adas, the director of Israel’s Central Elections Committee, said that, as in the past, the election results will be reliable.

Supporters of Israel's Likud party lift a banner depicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the election campaign at Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, March 19, 2021. (Photo/JTA-Emmanuel Dunand-AFP via Getty Images)
Supporters of Israel’s Likud party lift a banner depicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the election campaign at Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, March 19, 2021. (Photo/JTA-Emmanuel Dunand-AFP via Getty Images)

“There have been attempts to delegitimize the election results and the trustworthiness of the Elections Committee,” she told the Israeli news website Ynet last week. “We’re aware of that, and it’s unfortunate that it’s happening, but I think that the Central Elections Committee has proven its extraordinary abilities and that all of the claims that have been made do not have a grasp of reality.”

Adas’ agency is cautioning Israelis, however, that the results will be delayed this year due to the pandemic. Unlike the United States, Israel does not allow most of its citizens to vote absentee; Israelis living abroad must fly home to vote, something that has been logistically tricky in an era of airport closures. But it does let a small group of people — including soldiers as well as government employees stationed abroad — cast their votes remotely.

This year, Israel is also allowing Covid patients and people in quarantine to vote absentee. In practice, that means that Adas’ office is expecting up to 600,000 absentee votes this time around, roughly double the number in past elections. That represents around 12 percent of all eligible voters. And with many small parties competing in this election, 12 percent can make a big difference.

Those votes are counted only after officials have tallied the ballots cast on Tuesday, and Adas told Ynet that she doesn’t expect complete results until Friday afternoon. In reality, the final count may come much later than that, because Israeli government offices shut down on Friday evening for Shabbat, and this week, Shabbat is followed immediately by the first day of Passover, which is also a day off in Israel. So it’s possible that Israelis won’t know the results until Monday.

One of the biggest differences between the United States and Israel, though, is that Israelis are used to not knowing who actually won their election for weeks. In nearly every recent election besides the 2020 vote, Americans have been able to learn who won the presidency on the night after votes are cast. Two people run, and one of them is generally the clear winner of the Electoral College.

Not so in Israel, where voters face two levels of uncertainty. First of all, Israeli exit polls are notoriously unreliable. In the pivotal 1996 election, exit polls projected that the Labor Party’s Shimon Peres had won the prime ministership, but the totals published the next morning gave a narrow victory to a then-young Netanyahu. Netanyahu also benefited from a broad discrepancy between exit polls and actual results in his 2015 victory.

But no matter who comes out ahead in the initial vote, the real winner of the election is whichever party leader can assemble a majority coalition in Israel’s fractious 120-seat parliament, the Knesset. That person isn’t always the leader of the biggest party.

This year, for example, Netanyahu’s Likud is expected to win the most votes by a wide margin. But Netanyahu’s opponents, who span the ideological spectrum, may win a majority of the Knesset’s seats. If that happens, they could try to find enough common ground to form a government and replace Netanyahu, who has governed for more than a decade.

But if neither Netanyahu nor his opponents can assemble a coalition — which is what happened twice in elections over the past two years — Israelis can expect to vote a fifth time in a few months.

Ben Sales
Ben Sales

JTA reporter

JTA

Content distributed by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency news service.