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Netanyahu Accuses Rivals of Plotting to ‘Steal’ Israeli Election

JERUSALEM — Fighting for his political life, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Monday accused opponents of trying to “steal” next week’s election and urged supporters to thwart them en masse.

The high-pitched rallying cry came after his conservative Likud Party failed to speed a contentious bill through Parliament that would have allowed party representatives to film inside polling stations, ostensibly to prevent voting fraud. Analysts said that the effort was more likely intended to intimidate Arab voters.

Mr. Netanyahu had made a late push for the introduction of cameras, asserting that they were necessary to prevent voting irregularities, primarily in Arab districts, and prompting a public uproar over democratic practices and privacy issues. He then accused his main rivals in predominantly Jewish parties of joining forces with the predominantly Arab parties to “bury” the bill.

“I only have one answer to all those who want to rig and steal the elections,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a campaign video released after the bill was dropped, for lack of parliamentary support. “Come in droves to the ballot box and vote with one slip only — there’s no privilege to act otherwise. Vote Likud.”

Vote fraud has not played a significant role in Israeli elections. The camera dispute in the final days of campaigning for the Sept. 17 election injected what Mr. Netanyahu’s critics called a noxious dose of anti-Arab racism, echoing questionable campaign tactics of the past.

The critics said the move was aimed at suppressing turnout among Arab voters, many of them already lacking confidence in the system. That would improve the chances of victory for Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc in what opinion polls predict to be a tight race.

Should he lose the election, political analysts said, Mr. Netanyahu could use the failure of the bill and the absence of cameras to question the results.

“It was clearly a pre-election trick,” said Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In Israel, she said, vote rigging is “a marginal phenomenon and not something that determines the outcome of an election.”

The director general of the Central Elections Committee, Orly Adas, has said that a police investigation after the last election in April found suspicion of fraud in two polling stations in the Arab sector that had benefited Mr. Netanyahu’s own Likud party, as well as Shas, a party of ultra-Orthodox Sephardic Jews.

Mr. Netanyahu, in office for the last decade, is fighting what might be his last campaign, while facing possible charges in three corruption cases. A special hearing with the attorney general has been set for early October.

The election will be Israel’s second in five months. The last election ended inconclusively after Mr. Netanyahu failed to form a governing coalition and moved instead to dissolve the newly elected Parliament.

His chief rival, Benny Gantz, a former military chief of staff who leads the centrist Blue and White party, attacked the attempt to pass the so-called camera law.

“The only fraud in our political system is Netanyahu,” he said.

Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint List alliance of predominantly Arab parties, accused Mr. Netanyahu of “going to battle against Arab society, the judicial system and the entire democratic space,” adding, “We’ll meet at the ballot box.”

Mr. Netanyahu tried to promote the legislation — an amendment to the elections law — in defiance of the attorney general and the Supreme Court judge who heads the Central Elections Committee. Both had cautioned against the measure, saying there was no time to equip or train enough party representatives and fearing, among other things, that it would cause chaos at polling stations.

Citing the camera bill and decrying what many liberals have described as Mr. Netanyahu’s disregard for the rule of law, Benny Begin, a veteran former Likud legislator and son of Menachem Begin, the party founder, told Israel’s Army Radio on Monday that he would not be voting Likud this time.

Avigdor Lieberman, a former Netanyahu ally turned nemesis, was the politician who wound up thwarting the camera bill, announcing on Monday morning that his hard-line Yisrael Beiteinu party would oppose the measure, dooming its chances of passing.

In the April election, Likud activists recorded Arab voters in an unsanctioned move, claiming they were acting to prevent election fraud. Later, associates took credit for the low Arab turnout.

The camera flap and Mr. Netanyahu’s subsequent call to his supporters to come out in droves was a 2019 twist on an episode that took place on Election Day in 2015. Then, in a seemingly desperate bid to rally support halfway through the balloting, he went on a tirade against Israel’s Arab citizens.

“Right-wing rule is in danger,” he said at the time. “Arab voters are streaming in huge quantities to the polling stations.” He said they were being bused in by left-wing organizations.

Accused of racism, he later apologized.

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