When you think of international election monitoring, the countries that leap to mind are Russia, India, Zimbabwe, Congo, Haiti, Venezuela and other places where the democratic process is habitually threatened by partisan violence and vote rigging.
The approval of impartial outside observers from such fine institutions as the European Parliament, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the Carter Center and the Organization of American States assures embattled electoral groups in such countries and the world at large of free and fair elections, or at least something that resembles it. The host countries are usually keen on satisfying the observers, lest their democratic pretensions be blown away altogether.
That’s why it apparently came as a shock to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein when he received a request — the first of its kind — from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean (PAM) to be allowed to monitor the Israeli elections scheduled for April 9.
Perhaps the PAM officials were simply naive. Like the rest of us, they read about a Shin Bet warning recently that an unnamed foreign power planned to meddle in the election process, and presumably they thought that Israel might need some help in keeping that process free and fair.
Or perhaps, in light of the Likud party’s refusal to support an updating of the election transparency law, which would require all parties to take responsibility for campaign ads in all media, there was reason to be extra-vigilant.
After all, it’s not just underdeveloped countries that require international observers. All 57 member states of the OSCE, including the United States, have agreed to allow election monitors. The 2018 midterm elections were the seventh time that the OSCE has sent delegations to the United States since 2002.
But PAM apparently did not reckon with the attitude in Israel.
In a letter sent on Monday, Edelstein rebuffed the democratic do-gooders, and he did it with a vengeance:
“We have never accepted the presence of outside observers of our democratic process, and the idea that we would ever do so is inconceivable,” Edelstein’s chief of staff Eran Sidis wrote on his behalf.
Using even more dramatic language, Edelstein “rejected the request as an unparalleled expression of arrogance.” One can almost hear the speaker fuming and sputtering as he dictated the text.
The reaction of PAM officials to Edelstein’s resounding “No” was not immediately available. But presumably there was a rethink about Israel scheduled soonest.
They will no doubt be asking themselves, “Why should Israel put itself above international scrutiny, when the hoariest democracies on the planet bow to it? Isn’t it, on the contrary, a bit of effrontery on Edelstein’s part?”
Well, could be. Israelis tend to pride themselves on their chutzpah.
Then, too, there is Israel’s reputation as the bastion of democracy in the Mideast. No self-respecting bastion would allow outside observers, no matter how impartial and well-mannered, to stand in judgment on the purity of its electoral process.
On the issue of foreign interference, the Shin Bet was quick to amend its initial warning. It said that the country has all the tools necessary to fend off any cyber-attack on its elections. The point was also made that the local low-tech voting (hand-counted ballot slips in locked boxes, however quaint this may seem), actually serves to protect Israeli elections from malicious manipulation — at least as far as cyber is concerned — since there’s nothing to hack.
Regarding Likud’s intransigence — all other parties agreed to the transparency measure — well, as the party noted, changes in such a delicate mechanism as electoral law should not be done overnight, in a state of unwonted alarm over some cyber boogeyman. We do have tools, you know.
Good old Likud.
But it is fair to assume that the real reason for Edelstein’s indignation was the home address of the request: PAM is an international organization that proudly identifies itself as “an Observer at the General Assembly of the United Nations, with a specific international juridical status.”
While PAM may not be drenched in the odium that attaches to the General Assembly itself, or to such U.N. agencies as UNESCO or the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), where Israel-bashing is a well-worn tradition, it nevertheless raised Edelstein’s hackles.
PAM hangs out with the same crowd that funds the NGOs that promote anti-Israel boycotts, that finances various Israeli left-wing groups in hopes of ousting the right-wing likes of Binyamin Netanyahu, and who mouths empty platitudes night and day about the two-state solution.
Any notion that international observers in Israeli elections would serve some impartial ideal of democracy is arguably naive in the extreme. Could they be trusted merely to keep an eagle eye on the ballot boxes to make sure they don’t disappear in the night? Maybe. But the potential for using the monitoring process to question the integrity of the Israeli elections is a risk not to be taken.
Israel has its own electoral oversight committee and a well-developed system of securing polling stations and ensuring the integrity of the vote count. It has worked quite well until now, and without any outside assistance.
Any offer from the international community to help with that process, no matter how well-meaning it seems, is, if not quite inconceivable, at least better left to another millennium.