Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party has admitted that it funded a campaign encouraging Israelis to vote for right-wing parties in the upcoming general election, in contravention of election spending regulations.
After repeatedly denying involvement, Likud yesterday admitted to Israel's Central Elections Committee – the body which oversees the country's electoral process – that it had financed the "Zazim Yamina" or "Moving Rightwards" campaign.
Zazim Yamina encourages the Israeli electorate to vote for one of the country's right-wing parties in the upcoming general election on 9 April, a move that would likely secure Netanyahu's re-election. It has tried to present itself as a non-partisan campaign unaffiliated with any specific party, but has in fact been receiving huge sums of money from the Likud, Haaretz explains, saying: "Sources familiar with the issue said that funding for the campaign […] totalled 15 million shekels ($4.1 million)."
The revelation that Likud funded Zazim Yamina could put the party in contravention of election spending regulations. In 2017, Israel passed the "V15 Law" – named after a similar allegedly-non-partisan campaign in the 2015 election – which limits fundraising by non-party political organisations in an election year. Under the law, any such organisation has to register as an "active elections body" to prevent them from being used to bypass party spending limits.
According to a Times of Israel article from 2017, "contributions larger than NIS 100,000 ($27,000) will have to be reported to the State Comptroller and those larger than NIS 400,000 [$110,000] will be subject to fines and possible criminal charges if fraud is suspected".
Given the huge sums Likud allegedly donated to the Zazim Yamina campaign, whether it will now face fines or charges is, as yet, unclear. Supreme Court Justice and Chairman of the Central Elections Committee Hanan Melcer – who previously ruled that any election activity by contesting parties must be clearly identifiable as belonging to said party – will hear petitions by the Israeli Labor party and attorney Shachar Ben-Meir against Zazim Yamina tomorrow.
The revelation comes just a day after it emerged that a network of fake social media accounts has been used to boost Netanyahu's re-election campaign. Israeli watchdog the Big Bots Project found that hundreds of social media accounts, many of which are fake, have been used to smear Netanyahu's election opponents and to amplify Likud's campaign messages. Though the watchdog found "no direct links" between the network, Netanyahu and Likud, it said the network "appeared to operate in coordination with the party and Mr. Netanyahu's re-election campaign" which could put it in violation of Israeli laws pertaining to elections, campaign finance, privacy and taxation.
For his part, Netanyahu has slammed the allegations, saying: "I thought it was an April Fool's joke, but it's not. They say I don't have support from real people, just from robots. They can't accept that you, citizens of Israel, support me. A million Likud voters are not bots."
At a press conference held yesterday, Netanyahu also paraded far-right political activist Giora Ezra – who runs a pro-Netanyahu Twitter account – in front of the cameras to prove that his social media supporters are not bots. Ezra has a history of expressing support for extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Kach party was banned from Israeli politics for racism, and has repeatedly attacked journalists for being "leftist enemies of Israel".
These ideas have formed a central component of Netanyahu's re-election bid since the election was called in December. With exactly one week to go until election day, Netanyahu is currently polling neck-and-neck with head of the Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) alliance Benny Gantz, though the right-wing bloc is expected to have a better chance at garnering the 61 seats needed to form a majority government.