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Probing Mrs. Netanyahu’s Bottle Deposits

Two days after Israel’s election season opened officially with the registration of party lists on Thursday, the campaign is already just about the dirtiest in memory. Various parties are suing to have the Central Elections Commission disallow the names of certain rival parties or bar individual candidates from running. And accusations of financial misdoing are flying right and left.

Lawmakers from the ruling Likud party have vowed to release a report on Sunday accusing main opposition party, the Labor-Livni alliance known as the Zionist Camp, of receiving illegal campaign donations from “leftist” foreign sources “aiming to overthrow the regime.” The accusation involves the so-called V-15 project (for Victory 2015), led by an American campaign consultant who has worked in the past for President Obama.

At the same time, the State Comptroller (equivalent to a national inspector general) said he has completed a long-awaited report on allegations of financial abuse in the management of the prime minister’s official residence, but won’t say when he’ll release it. Press accounts have reported allegations by former household of inflated spending, including some 4,200 shekels ($1,000) per month on alcohol, and diverting official funds for personal use by the prime minister and his family. But nobody knows what the State Comptroller has documented in his 18-month investigation, and he’s given no indication whether or not he’ll release the report before the election. Lawyers for the Netanyahus say releasing the report could unfairly influence the voters. Critics say withholding it could permit the reelection of a felon.

Tzipi Livni, who was Netanyahu’s justice minister until two months ago, called Saturday morning for the state attorney general to open a criminal investigation of the prime minister on suspicion of larceny. But right now the criminal justice system is looking particularly hard at the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu. Last June the daily Yediot Ahronot reported that she had ordered a set of garden furniture for the official residence in Jerusalem that was identical to an old set at their private residence in Caesarea, and then swapped the sets, moving the old furniture to Jerusalem and the new, government-funded purchase to Caesarea. The investigation of the claim, reportedly made by the former manager of the prime minister’s residence, was taken over by the State Comptroller’s office and has been under lock and key. Last week, however, new reports surfaced that the first lady had been ordering staff at the official residence to collect used bottles, return them to the supermarket for deposit and then keeping the money, said to total thousands of shekels, all of it government property. Haaretz reported yesterday that the allegations against Sara Netanyahu have been separated from the ones against her husband and the attorney general today ordered a criminal investigation into Mrs. Netanyahu’s alleged actions.

Yisrael Hayom reports that residence driver Victor Saraga signed an affidavit yesterday testifying that he took the bottles to the supermarket (after other staff reportedly refused) and put the deposit money into the official residence petty cash account.

The Latest Polls: Likud and its main rival, the Labor-Livni alliance known as the Zionst Camp, continue to run neck and neck. Of the two most recent polls, released on Friday, one by Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet had the two tied at 26 Knesset seats each (out of 120 total), while the other by Walla News had Likud up by one. (You can see all the polls here.)

The Walla poll, the first one conducted since Eli Yishai’s far-right Shas breakaway Yahad (formerly Ha’am Itanu) merged with the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit, showed the new alliance finally passing the threshold and winning four seats, as predicted. Those seats appear to come at the expense of the larger right-wing Jewish Home party, which dropped from 16 seats in most recent polls to just 12. That puts Jewish Home in a tie for third-largest party with the newly formed United Arab List, an alliance of Islamist, Palestinian nationalist and communist parties that consistently takes 12 seats in polls (up from the combined 11 they’ve won when running separately in recent elections).

Walla also showed the left-wing Meretz party falling to just four seats, putting it perilously close to dropping below the threshold for entry to the Knesset, 3.25% of the popular vote.

In the center, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu, United Torah Judaism and Shas are all seesawing between 7 and 9 seats, though Yesh Atid was winning 11 seats as recently as January 27.

What’s in a name? Jewish Home Knesset candidate Ronen Shoval, founder of the rightist truth squad Im Tirtzu, on January 22 filed a complaint with the Central Elections Commission demanding that it bar the Labor-Livni alliance, the Zionist Camp, from calling itself Zionist on grounds that they are in fact “post-Zionist.” Israeli election law forbids parties using names that could mislead voters.

As evidence Shoval submitted some (old) quotes from Zionist Camp candidates that appeared in a Jewish Home ad in January, including former social protest leader Stav Shafir allegedly calling Hatikvah a “racist” anthem and former journalist Merav Michaeli saying mothers shouldn’t send their sons to the army as long as the occupation continues.

In reply, a group of Zionist Camp supporters filed a complaint with the elections commission demanding that it bar the Jewish Home party from using the name “Jewish” on grounds that its positions on civil rights and income inequality stand in opposition to Jewish values.

Beiteinu’s Battles: Another complaint was filed with the elections commission by the Yisrael Beiteinu party, calling for Knesset member Hanin Zuabi of the Palestinian nationalist Balad party to be disqualified from running. She was suspended from the house for six months last October after asserting that the kidnappers of the three yeshiva students last June were “not terrorists.” She’s currently No. 6 on the new United Arab List. A separate complaint calling for Zuabi’s disqualification was filed by Likud lawmaker Danny Danon, the right-wing firebrand who was fired as deputy defense minister by Netanyahu last fall. He’s currently No. 9 on the Likud slate for the upcoming election.

Meanwhile, foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, the Yisrael Beiteinu party chief, said in an interview with Ynet Video this morning that he “won’t be a partner in a govermnent of the left,” which puts a crimp in Labor chief Yitzhak Herzog’s hopes of forming a coalition, assuming the still-growing corruption investigation centered on Yisrael Beiteinu doesn’t knock it out of the Knesset altogether. (Most polls show the party winning 5 seats, down from 13 in the current Knesset.) Lieberman said the only possibilities he sees are a government of the right or a left-right unity government “led by the right,” meaning, in both cases, Netanyahu redux.

Enter the Lists: A total of 26 parties registered for the election and submitted candidate slates on Thursday. The Green Party, Mifleget HaYerukim, changed its name at the last minute to Mifleget HaYerukim Lo Sam Zayin, or “The Green Party Doesn’t Give a F***|.”

Other parties with slim chances of making the cut include a Haredi women’s party, U-BeZchutan (“And By Their Merit”); a Bratslav Hasidic party called “We’re All Friends Na-Nach”; the perennial also-ran Green Leaf (Aleh Yarok) party, which favors legalizing marijuana; and a new grouplet with only one candidate (remember: entry into the Knesset requires 3.25% of the popular vote, enough for four seats) called “Protect Our Children — Stop Feeding Them Porn.”

Among the candidates are two children of onetime Likud foreign minister David Levy: daughter Orly Levy-Abekasis, No. 2 on the Yisrael Beiteinu slate; and son Jackie Levy, No. 18 on the Likud slate.

During the registration proceedings, the representatives who presented their parties’ lists signed some forms and then shook hands with the chairman of the Central Elections Commission, Supreme Court justice Salim Joubran. All except one representative, that is: No. 4 on the new Yahad-Otzma Yehudit combined list, the Boston-born veteran Kahanist Baruch Marzel. When the other the members of his party shook the hand of the justice, a distinguished Christian Arab attorney from Haifa, Marzel demonstratively turned his back. He later told reporters Joubran “shouldn’t be a judge.”

Yisrael Beiteinu appears to have the highest number of newcomers on its list. Party chief Lieberman had to scramble in recent weeks to fill the places of top figures who’ve announced they’re quitting politics in the wake of the corruption scandal, including agriculture minister Yair Shamir, internal security minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch and deputy interior minister Faina Kirschenbaum. But if lightning strikes and it wins 10 seats, the Knesset can welcome as its youngest member the 24-year-old chair of the students association at Ariel University in the West Bank.

No. 10 has been causing a stir since the list was submitted on Thursday, because of a status (in Hebrew) she posted on her Facebook page back in 2010 celebrating the ramming of two Palestinian children during a rock-throwing incident. The Hebrew post reads: “Yuccchhh ssstinking Arab … for anyone who hasn’t seen it there’s a clip on YouTube ‘Arab run over’!!! excellent evening.” (The Maariv story shows her post, which includes a graphic screen shot from the accident.)

For my money, though, considering the party’s legal woes, as well as the recent acquittal of Lieberman himself following a long bout with corruption allegations, the best part of No. 10 is her name: שירה מיסטריאל (transliteration: Shira Mistrial).

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