TEL AVIV, Israel—Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu stands a good chance of winning yet another national election later this month, but in case he doesn’t, some of his surrogates are already circulating an explanation: Bibi’s opponents are planning to steal the vote.
The very Trumpian claim—backed up by no discernible evidence—is just one way Netanyahu’s campaign looks increasingly like the one run by the former U.S. president last year. Bibi has made baseless allegations against rivals, deflected attention from coronavirus-related deaths, and emphasized his own role in the successful vaccination drive. He even has a former Breitbart columnist as his campaign advisor.
In three previous votes over the past two years, Netanyahu centered his campaign in part on his strong relationship with then-President Donald Trump, who enjoys wide popularity in Israel. Giant billboards showed the two men embracing.
But with a Democrat now in the White House, the surrogates are focusing less on Trump and more on his playbook.
“The election fraud has arrived,’’ warned Iki Cohen, a Likud party activist, on Twitter at the start of the campaign in December.
Cohen and others have pointed to new election measures to accommodate pandemic voting, including an expansion in polling places and mail-in ballots, as the kind of bureaucratic maneuvering that Netanyahu’s deep-state opponents could use to manipulate the tally.
According to recent polls, Netanyahu’s Likud party is expected to win more seats than any other parliamentary faction. His political block of right-wing and religious parties is hovering close to the 61-seat majority needed to control the Israeli Parliament.
A February survey by Channel 13 television found Israelis view him as the most suitable candidate for the job by a nearly 2-to-1 advantage over his next closest rival, opposition leader Yair Lapid.
The strategy of sowing uncertainty about the legitimacy of the election would become useful as a Plan B, in case Netanyahu falls short of winning a clear majority in Parliament and fails to form a coalition, a horse-trading process that could last weeks or months.
“It would help shape the public consciousness that, once again, institutional powers are working against Netanyahu to prevent him from remaining in power,’’ said Yossi Dorfman, a social media consultant and part of an activist movement that wants Netanyahu removed from office because of corruption charges against him. “He wants to use this energy to pressure government institutions to rule in his favor” on the election results.
The changes instituted by Israel’s Central Elections Committee, the body charged with carrying out the election and chaired by a Supreme Court justice, will make voting more accessible to tens of thousands of Israelis suffering from COVID-19 or under a quarantine. The committee is adding thousands of polling stations—an increase of more than one-third—to allow for social distancing; offering rides to voters limited by the pandemic; nearly doubling the number of absentee ballots; and opening drive-through polling stations.
As with the recent U.S. election, those changes are likely to slow the vote count and inject more uncertainty into the process. (In the last election, 7.2 percent of Israelis voted absentee compared to 46% in the United States.) That uncertainly could open the door to fraud allegations.
Even before the announcement was made about new voting measures, the prime minister’s social media surrogates—chief among them his son Yair Netanyahu—had been attacking the Central Elections Committee’s integrity and accusing it of throwing the counts against Netanyahu in previous elections.
Yair Netanyahu frequently plays the role of social media attack dog on his father’s behalf.
“I suddenly remembered how elections [in Israel] were stolen via double envelopes,’’ Yair Netanyahu tweeted in November 2020, using the Israeli term for mail-in ballots.
The attacks on social media have focused on allegations that the Supreme Court justice who chairs the committee, Uzi Fogelman, is a tool of the Israeli left.
“What is happening here is no less grave than what Trump and his surrogates did to the masses on the eve of the ascent to the Capitol,’’ wrote Ben Caspit, an Israeli political columnist, in the Maariv newspaper. “It starts with a smart-aleck sitting up high at Balfour Street [the prime minister’s Jerusalem residence] and then trickles down to a well-oiled system that can spread the message effectively across a broad infrastructure.”
Like Trump, Netanyahu is grappling with disaffected members of his own party who bolted Likud to run an opposition campaign. The group could potentially partner with parties in the Israeli center and left after the election to form an alternative coalition and end Netanyahu’s 12-year reign. (He also served as prime minister for three years in the 1990s.)
And he’s embarked on a surprise voter outreach to Israel’s Arab minority, hoping they will forget his use of anti-Arab dog whistles in the past to scare up higher turnout among his base of right-wing loyalists. Netanyahu has touted his 2015 plan to invest about $4.6 billion to improve services in Arab-Israeli cities, though much of that money has yet to be spent due to red tape.
Unlike Trump, Netanyahu has largely refrained from lending his own voice to the delegitimization campaign instigated by his backers on social media.
The campaign to target the legitimacy of the election operates as a diffuse echo chamber rather than a disciplined top-down messaging operation, said one digital media expert.
“I don’t think someone at Balfour coordinates all these efforts. You don’t need to have people sitting around the same table,’’ said Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. “It’s a more complicated picture. It’s more like a collection of independent players, each who knows what part they play. This is what Trump was so genius in doing. And this is what I think the Likud is trying to do.”
Purveyors across social media platforms range from Netanyahu loyalist legislators and Likud party activists to right-wing organizations and grassroots activists.
Earlier this year, the far-right Israeli nongovernmental organization Im Tirtzu launched a campaign titled “Stop the Fraud,” echoing voter fraud allegations in the United States. The organization alleges corruption in vote counting in Arab-Israeli districts.
Im Tirtzu, which has raised millions of dollars from U.S. donors in campaigns against left-wing Israeli groups, has also accused the Central Elections Committee of miscounting votes in the previous three elections without providing any evidence. Describing its campaign as an “election integrity initiative,” the organization has called on supporters to monitor polling stations for voter bribery or other misdeeds during the March 23 vote.
“As long as there’s no oversight of the Central Election Committee, right wing votes won’t have any significance!!!’’ complained Ream Shai, a Likud party supporter, in a Jan. 21 post on Facebook. “What happened in the U.S. will happen here too!!!!”
Some analysts are wondering whether the disinformation campaign could culminate in violence similar to the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol.
But Jonathan Rynhold, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, pointed out that because Netanyahu faces opponents on the right as well, it will be hard to make the case that a left-wing cabal stole power.
“You’re going to have two large center-right-wing parties, and whichever way it cuts, they will disagree with Netanyahu,” he said.
Altshuler expressed concern that social media platforms and Israeli authorities aren’t doing enough to combat the disinformation campaign.
“Just like what happened in America, the authorities here don’t see the bigger picture,” she said. “I don’t see how the Israeli authorities are trying to cope with this.”