Knesset Vote Scandal Puts Democracy in the Dock

By Elli Wohlgelernter

Published July 18, 2003, issue of July 18, 2003.
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JERUSALEM — The fraud squad of Israel’s national police is expected to complete its investigation into the Knesset double-voting scandal this week and will make its recommendations to Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein on whether to pursue a full prosecution.

The scandal involves Knesset members, most of them from Likud, who are suspected of casting dual votes — one for themselves and one for a colleague — during a marathon debate on the national budget May 28 and May 29. As many as a dozen lawmakers have been investigated.

With one member already admitting he double-voted and others reportedly caught on video, the scandal has some observers wondering aloud about the state of Israeli public morality, the ethics of the Likud Party and the stability of Israeli democracy itself.

“It’s a banana republic,” said Fred Lazin, Hurst professor of government at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “There has to be a degree of honesty among public officials. This is blatantly against it. Some businessmen say it’s cheaper to buy a member of Knesset than it is to hire a PR firm to do some work for you.”

Others warn that the affair may be no more than human error, magnified by the tabloids. “I make a distinction between a bona fide mistake and a willful act to influence the outcome of the vote,” said former justice minister Amnon Rubinstein, currently dean of the law school at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. “Unintended double-voting takes place very often. When it happens, members let the speaker know. But intentional double-voting? That I’ve never seen. I’ve never even heard it mentioned.”

However, Rubinstein said, “If this is true, it is a deterioration in the ethics of the Knesset and should be punished both by the ethics committee and criminal procedure.”

The scandal erupted during a two-day marathon on the government’s economic recovery bill. Amid 14 hours of voting on some 8,000 amendments, Likudnik Michael Gorlovsky admitted he had pressed party colleague Gilad Erdan’s electronic voting button as well as his own. Reports quickly surfaced of at least one other case, involving the vote of the absent Inbal Gavrieli of Likud.

An internal Knesset probe, including a review of nine hours of video from the Knesset’s stationary camera, revealed numerous suspicious actions. Nine lawmakers were implicated, all of them freshmen: Gorlovsky, Erdan, Gavrieli, Roni Bar-On, Yechiel Hazan, Ya’acov Edri and Ehud Yatom, all from Likud, and Wasal Taha and Jamal Zahalka of Balad, an Arab party. Amid opposition accusations that the dual votes were intended to tilt the outcome, police launched an investigation.

Additional drama was provided by a lawmaker from the United Torah Judaism party, Ya’acov Litzman. He was the first to report the Gavrieli incident but then refused to say who had cast Gavrieli’s vote, citing a religious ban on tale-bearing. He eventually agreed to identify the culprit indirectly, implicating Hazan.

The Knesset probe found several cases that appeared clearly accidental and were not probed further. One involved Interior Minister Avraham Poraz of Shinui, who voted in the place of Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz of Likud. When Katz told him he was in the wrong seat, Poraz got up and voted — again — from his own seat.

In the meantime, on orders from the attorney general the police probe has turned into a criminal investigation. Hazan was questioned for seven hours last Sunday at National Fraud Squad headquarters, after being warned he could face charges. He said in a statement afterward that he had “denied to police that he had double-voted.”

Taha, who was questioned for three hours, said he had only shown Zahalka which buttons to push.

Gorlovsky’s attorney, Oren Biton, told the Forward his client had made an innocent mistake. “To accuse someone under Israeli criminal law, it’s not enough that he is doing something that is criminal — it has to be willful,” Biton said. “When my client put his finger on the button, he didn’t think he was doing something wrong. He saw other parliament members, older than him, who were not voting from their places” and assumed it was acceptable.

When it was announced that a double-vote had been cast, Biton said, Gorlovsky identified himself to the Knesset speaker. He added that Gorlovsky had missed an briefing for new Knesset members and predicted the case would be dropped.

But good-government lobbyists are fighting to ensure charges are filed. “This matter is definitely not a regular example of breaking the law but has put severe obstacles in the heart of the democratic process,” said attorney Barak Calev of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel.

Calev said his organization had submitted a criminal complaint to police last month. “We said there is no justification whatsoever to close this matter only with a warning, or mild measures in the Knesset ethics committee,” he said. “The attorney general should deal with it in [the] most severe manner, which means by criminal procedure, at least concerning one Parliament member, Gorlovsky, who admitted doing it.”

According to some government critics, the high proportion of Likudniks in the scandal might be traced to the party’s nominating procedures. The Likud’s December 7 Knesset primaries led to widespread allegations of corruption. Media coverage suggested that known organized crime figures were brokering blocs of votes and in some cases fielding their own candidates. In January, indictments were brought against three Likud activists; two were charged with vote-selling, and the third with threatening a winning candidate.

Police also probed vote-buying allegations against several Knesset members, including a deputy minister, Naomi Blumenthal. No charges have been filed, but the case is still open. Blumenthal was booted from her ministry by Prime Minister Sharon after she refused to answer police questions, and Rubinstein, the attorney general, asked the Knesset House Committee to strip her of parliamentary immunity, but the panel voted in May to defy him.

“This might be a sign that the poison fruit is a result of a very problematic process,” Calev said. “I would not generalize to blame the whole Likud Party , but I would say that such a problematic process, which we witnessed in the Likud primaries, is something that is bound to bring about such phenomena when the people who are elected serve as parliament members.”

“It is very obvious that whoever was not alert enough on Friday in the primaries will reap these bad apples on Saturday,” Calev said.

Some critics point to deeper flaws in Israel’s political culture. Israel “doesn’t have a strong democratic tradition,” said Lazin of Ben-Gurion University. “The most important model for understanding Israeli politics is the Soviet system, not American democracy. The founders all came from Eastern Europe, from Poland and the Soviet Union. Are there democratic traditions there?”

But Arye Carmon, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said it was wrong to tar the Likud or the Knesset. “I am afraid the media may purge the entire Knesset, but I would not generalize,” Carmon said. “It has nothing to do with that; it has everything to do with the personality of those who committed these crimes. Period.”

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