Israel’s Central Elections Committee is considering whether to ban Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party from campaigning on social media, after new revelations that the party could have paid for the fake social media accounts uncovered earlier this week.
The committee – which oversees Israel’s election process – met yesterday to discuss a petition to ban the Likud party from campaigning on social media in the few days remaining until the general election on 9 April.
The petition was filed by Likud’s biggest electoral rival, Benny Gantz’s Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) alliance, after a report released earlier this week revealed that over 150 fake social media accounts had been disseminating content encouraging Israelis to vote for Netanyahu. The fake accounts also targeted Gantz with negative content, as well as journalists and public figures Netanyahu considers to be hostile towards him, the Times of Israel reported.
Though the report – compiled by internet watchdog the Big Bots Project – initially 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”.
A key figure named in the affair is Likud campaigner Yitzhak Haddad. Haddad reportedly told a private investigator in a recorded conversation that he was an “undercover activist” for the social media campaign, that the initiative promoting Netanyahu involved “a lot of money” and that he was in contact with senior Likud members.
However, when questioned by the elections committee yesterday, Haddad denied the contents of the recording, claiming he meant only that “if a social media network like that did exist, it would probably cost a lot of money”. He also stressed: “I have no idea myself; I don’t understand these kinds of things.”
When pressed by the head of the committee, Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer, who asked Haddad “then why did you say in the call that you were in contact with Likud lawyers,” Haddad replied: “It was a joke, it’s all for the sake of Zionism.”
Allegations of rule-breaking, campaign overspending and potential corruption have plagued Netanyahu’s Likud party this week. On Tuesday, the party admitted to the Central Elections Committee that it had funded an anonymous campaign encouraging Israelis to vote for right-wing parties, which will likely support Netanyahu’s government should he be re-elected on 9 April.
Despite Likud previously denying any links to the “Zazim Yamina” or “Moving Rightwards” campaign, this week it was revealed that the initiative could have received up to 15 million shekels ($4.1 million) in funding from the party. Likud’s Director General, Tzuri Siso, also admitted to the committee that the party was behind the operation.
In response, Justice Melcer yesterday fined the Likud party 15,000 shekels ($4,150) and recommended that Israel Police open a criminal probe into whether its financing of Zazim Yamina amounts to a criminal violation of campaign transparency laws. The probe will need to be completed within three months and submitted to Israel’s Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit, and State Comptroller Joseph Shapira.
Netanyahu is no stranger to allegations of corruption. In February, Mandelblit announced his recommendation that Netanyahu be indicted for three counts of corruption, after several-year-long investigations that have become known as Cases 1000, 2000 and 4000 respectively.
New details have also emerged in the so-called “submarine affair”, often dubbed Case 3000. Though Netanyahu was previously cleared of any involvement in the affair, the State Comptroller’s Office recently found that Netanyahu bought shares in Texas-based steel factory SeaDrift – a long-time supplier of German shipbuilding firm ThyssenKrupp at the heart of the scandal – at a 95 per cent discount, allowing him to make millions of dollars in personal profit.
Netanyahu’s election rivals have tried to use these corruption allegations to discredit the incumbent prime minister, with Gantz calling for a full investigation into his apparent involvement. However, since many of these allegations are long-standing stories, members of the Israeli public have largely already decided whether or not they are perturbed by Netanyahu’s corruption scandals. As a result, the scandals have had little impact on Likud’s polling figures, which show the party still running neck-and-neck with Blue and White.