Israelis go to polls in election, as hidden cameras banned after Arab minority complaints

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An Arab Israeli woman casts her vote in Daliyat Al-karmel in northern Israel. (AFP)
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A Bedoin man casts his vote in the Israel elections on April 9, 2019. (AFP)
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A combination picture shows Benny Gantz (left), leader of Blue and White party voting at a polling station in Rosh Ha'ayin and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voting at a polling station in Jerusalem during Israel's parliamentary election April 9, 2019. (Reuters)
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An Israeli woman casts her vote during Israel's parliamentary elections in Rosh Haayin, Tuesday, April 9, 2019. (AP)
Updated 09 April 2019

Israelis go to polls in election, as hidden cameras banned after Arab minority complaints

  • Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. across the country and close at 10 p.m.
  • No party has ever won an outright majority in the 120-seat parliament

JERUSALEM: Israelis began voting in an election on Tuesday that could hand conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a record fifth term or see him dethroned by an ex-general who has pledged clean government and social cohesion.

Polling stations opened at 7am across the country and close at 10pm. 

But following an Arab party's complaints that it observed Netanyahu's Likud party deploying staffers who attempted to secretly surveil predominantly-Arab polling stations, Israel's elections committee has banned hidden cameras at polling stations.

Israeli media reported on Tuesday that Likud dispatched 1,200 observers in Arab polls. The Israeli daily Haaretz published videos showing activists caught with cameras by police, with one confessing Likud had sent him.

Police said they were working to "maintain public order" after "a number of suspected irregularities" in northern polls.

Arab parties lambasted the cameras as a ploy to depress their constituents' turnout.

The Likud party declined to comment, but when a reporter asked Netanyahu about the claims as he cast his ballot, he responded: "There should be cameras everywhere. Not hidden. It's important to ensure a legitimate vote."

But the victor may not be decided immediately on Tuesday evening. No party has ever won an outright majority in the 120-seat parliament, meaning days or even weeks of coalition negotiations will lie ahead.

Dubbed “King Bibi,” Netanyahu has rallied a rightist camp hardened against the Palestinians and played up Israeli foreign policy boons that are the fruit of his ties with the Trump administration.

But the 69-year-old Likud party leader’s hope of overtaking Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, as longest-serving premier in July has been dented by a looming graft indictment. He denies any wrongdoing.

Critics warn of “Bibi fatigue” and argue that the parliamentary election should bring fresh faces to high office.

Stalking Netanyahu in the opinion polls has been Benny Gantz, a former chief of the armed forces and centrist political novice. Buttressed by two other former generals at the top of his Blue and White party, Gantz, 59, has sought to push back against Netanyahu’s self-styled image as unrivalled in national security.

After the election Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, will consult the leaders of every party represented in the Knesset and select the person he believes has the best chance of forming a government. Voting at a polling station in Rosh Ha’ayin near Tel Aviv, gynecologist Yaron Zalel, 64, said he supported Netanyahu’s chief opponent, the centrist former general Benny Gantz.




A combination picture shows Benny Gantz (left), leader of Blue and White party voting at a polling station in Rosh Ha'ayin and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voting at a polling station in Jerusalem during Israel's parliamentary election. (Reuters)

“I’m feeling excited because I think we are going into a new era, and we are going to change the government today,” he added. “Netanyahu did a lot of great things for Israel, really, a lot of great things. But he is 13 years in power and enough is enough,” he said.

“He has had enough, he did enough. Now when he feels his earth, the political earth, is shaking, he is destroying everything. This has to be stopped. I am here for my kids and the next generations. There is no one who can’t be replaced.”

Backing Netanyahu was another voter at the same polling station, Avi Gur, 65, a lecturer at Ariel University in a settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

“Very excited, very excited. I hope that rightism will win,” he said, adding that the Likud leader was “the best prime minister there has ever been” in Israel.

“We are leading in high tech, we are leading in security, we are leading in the economy now. That’s good.”

In Jerusalem, Ronza Barakat, a librarian belonging to Israel’s Arab minority, said she backed the left-wing Meretz party.

“I voted for them hoping for change, a change in the racism that exists here,” she said. “We live together in a place of peace, why should hate exist between people?”

With little policy daylight between the two main candidates on issues such as Iran and relations with the Palestinians, much of the voting will be guided by judgments on character and personality.

In vitriolic campaigns waged largely over social media rather than in town squares or street corners, they have traded escalating accusations of corruption, of fostering bigotry and even of conspiring with Israel’s adversaries.

Netanyahu casts himself as the victim of media bias and judicial overreach. “This is a choice between a strong right-wing government under Netanyahu or a weak leftist government under Gantz,” his Likud party said in a pre-election statement.

Gantz casts himself as a salve for Israel’s religiously and ethnically riven society and its ties with liberal Jews abroad. “Netanyahu is not the messiah, nor an irreplaceable legend,” Gantz told Reuters in the run-up to the election. “The people of Israel long for something else.”

But the distinctions between the leading parties in Israel were not as vivid as they had been in past decades, said Nabil Shaath, a veteran adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“There were times when elections were important, because there was really more than one camp in Israel, there was a left and there was a right,” he said on Monday.

“But now, what are you talking about? It’s the right, and then further to the right and then the extreme right and then further to the extreme right, there is really no left, left is Israel.”

Both Netanyahu and Gantz have publicly ruled out a future alliance in a “national unity” coalition, but some analysts predict a rethink, especially if the candidates agree to tackle together a widely expected US plan for Middle East peace.


British MPs call for UK to recognize Palestinian state

Updated 46 min 14 sec ago

British MPs call for UK to recognize Palestinian state

  • Palestinian envoy welcomes cross-party call ahead of visit by Prince Charles
  • The signatories said the move was long overdue

LONDON: A group of British MPs has called for the UK to recognize the state of Palestine ahead of a visit by Prince Charles to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
In a letter to The Times, the MPs, along with figures from think tanks and pressure groups, said the move was long overdue and would help fulfil Britain’s “promise of equal rights for peoples in two states.” 
The call comes as the heir to the British throne travels on Thursday to Israel and the occupied West Bank. 
During the visit, he will meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem. 
Prince Charles will also attend the World Holocaust Forum to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. 
The letter said since 2014, no meaningful progress has been made in the peace process, and Israel’s actions are pushing a two-state solution beyond reach.
“Illegal Israeli settlements, described by the Foreign Office as undermining peace efforts, are expanding,” the letter said.
Among the signatories are Emily Thornberry, a candidate for the Labour Party leadership, and Crispin Blunt, chairman of the Conservative Middle East Council.
Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian envoy to the UK, welcomed the move but said full recognition from the British government should have happened many years ago.
“Recognition doesn’t contradict peace-making and negotiations,” Zomlot told Arab News, referring to the main argument used by the UK against taking such a step. 

“It reinforces the vision (of a Palestinian state) and a negotiated two-state solution. It should happen now because of the threat of annexation (of Palestinian territory) and the killing of the two-state solution.”
Alistair Carmichael, a Liberal Democrat MP who signed the letter, told Arab News that the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government toward Palestine “makes the achievement of a two-state solution more and more remote with every week that passes.”
He said: “The UK has historic and political obligations toward Israelis and Palestinians. There’s now no longer any good reason not to recognize the state of Palestine.”
A spokesman for Labour MP Fabian Hamilton, who also signed the letter, told Arab News: “The fact that this has cross-party support shows the growing desire across Parliament for the recognition of a Palestinian state and a two-state solution.”
Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, said the international community needs to finally stand up for the solution that it has had on the table for decades.
Doyle, an Arab News columnist, said the letter is an “indication that many people in British politics think we should be doing this, we should be standing up for the Palestinian right to self-determination, the legal rights, at a time when the state of Israel is doing everything to stop this, to take more land from the Palestinians.”
The letter was timed to coincide with a meeting of European foreign ministers on Monday, who discussed the Middle East peace process.
The Palestinian Authority, which runs parts of the West Bank, has been increasing calls for European countries to recognize the state of Palestine as the US has shifted to a more pro-Israel stance, including recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017.
Writing in The Guardian on Monday, Saeb Erekat, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said Europe could strengthen its role in the peace process if it recognized Palestine.
“European recognition of this state is not only a European responsibility but a concrete way to move toward a just and lasting peace,” he said.
Only nine out of the 28 EU countries have so far recognized Palestine as a state, compared to 138 out of the 193 UN member states.
In 2011, the UK’s then-Foreign Minister William Hague said the British government “reserves the right” to recognize Palestine “at a time of our own choosing, and when it can best serve the cause of peace.”
In 2012, the UN General Assembly voted to upgrade Palestine’s status to that of “non-member observer state.”
Zomlot said that the UK has a historically important role in the Palestinian issue, dating back to the British mandate of Palestine (1920-1948, the Balfour Declaration — a public statement issued by the British government in 1917 that expressed support to the formation of “a national home for the Jewish people” — and subsequently the 1948 Nakba (catastrophe) and the military occupation of that 1967 borders.
“With the current quest for the UK to be a global player and post-Brexit, we believe that the UK could be a very important factor in achieving Middle East peace,” he added.