Elections In Israel

Millions Of Israelis Missing Voting Cards

Matthew Kalman on an election snafu that denied millions of Israelis their voting cards, and what it could mean.

A massive failure that has resulted in millions of Israelis not receiving polling cards could mean the lowest ever turnout in Tuesday's general election, leaving an already rattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the powerless prisoner of small, extreme parties. Israeli politicians are demanding explanations after millions of Israelis failed to receive their polling cards due to the failure of a newly privatized printing and delivery system. Piles of the cards were discovered dumped in the entrances to apartment buildings and in trash cans. Others have simply failed to materialize.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai ordered more personnel on the government phone helplines and took out adverts across the media explaining that people could still vote by showing some ID, but millions of potential voters do not know where their polling booth is located—or if they have a vote at all. The elderly, new immigrants and disadvantaged will be hardest hit by the unprecedented failure to send out the polling cards on time. Disabled voters will not know where they are supposed to vote at special polling stations set aside for them. Arab voters, already highly suspicious of Israel's political system, may fear they have simply been disenfranchised.

Despite the staggering success of Waze, the high-tech driving smartphone app, Israelis are not known for their skill at giving even the simplest of directions. The prospect of millions of disenfranchised Israelis all trying to phone the same government helpline, or log on to the same website, on Tuesday morning as part-time operators try to direct them to their polling booth, is a communications nightmare too horrible to contemplate.

This basic breakdown in Israel's election planning could have significant political repercussions. Benjamin Netanyahu, already rattled by the final polls last Friday that showed his ruling coalition losing votes to smaller parties, will have more problems. A low turnout will favor the small religious and extremist parties who are his natural coalition partners, boxing in his future government against any possible concessions in peace talks with the Palestinians and on other major issues.

Israeli voter turnout, which used to be among the highest in the democratic world, has declined steadily in recent years, from 79.3 percent in 1996 to 64.7 percent in 2009. Among Arab voters, the drop has been even more dramatic, falling from 77 percent to 53.4 percent over the same period. Even before this latest glitch, it was feared that many Israeli Arab voters would adhere to boycott calls from the Islamic Movement and other radical groups, reducing the Arab vote to less than half of those eligible.

Despite his almost certain victory, Netanyahu has been urging Likud supporters not to stay home. On Sunday night, Netanyahu called a snap press conference to announce the appointment of his wildly popular Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon as the new chairman of the Israel Land Administration. Netanyahu promised that Kahlon would reduce fast-rising real estate and housing prices just as he slashed the cost of cellular telephones by breaking the cartel of mobile phone providers.

The move was clearly intended as an election ploy and the head of the Central Election Committee immediately banned all coverage of the press conference, branding it "election propaganda" which under Israeli rules cannot be broadcast in the pre-election period. It also turned out that Kahlon's "appointment" is meaningless because it would not take effect until the new government is formed, and the chairman of the Israel Land Administration is not in the gift of the prime minister anyway.

But Netanyahu's precise tactic depends on which conspiracy theory you believe. Was he simply trying to steal some extra prime-time two nights before the election? Or was he mindful of an event in 2003, when a press conference by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was taken off the air midway through because it contravened the election laws? The resulting furor against Sharon's perceived humiliation proved to be the turning-point of the election, which he went on to win comfortably. Was Netanyahu actually hoping the plug would be pulled on him halfway through a sentence, gaining him similar popular outrage? "If that is the case, hats off to him for guile and deviousness," says Yossi Verter in Haaretz.At the moment, the prime minister simply looks desperate. I received a phone call last week from Netanyahu himself—I assume it was recorded since he didn't answer any of my questions—urging me to vote in order to ensure he had a strong enough Likud bloc in the Knesset to govern. It was a wasted call: I'm not an Israeli citizen.