The High Court of Justice overturned Wednesday a ban by the Central Elections Committee, which sought to prevent Foreign Minister Avidgor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party from handing out free copies of the provocative French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
A panel of three judges voted to allow the election stunt, with justices Noam Sohlberg and Esther Hayut ruling in favor, and Supreme Court President Miriam Naor against.
In their decision, the judges wrote that distributing the magazine was “legitimate election propaganda” and did not constitute a prohibited gift, as the elections committee had argued. The court said that allowing the initiative would not pose a realistic threat to the integrity of the elections process, while preventing it would be a blow to freedom of speech.
Israel’s national elections are scheduled for March 17.
Liberman welcomed the ruling, claiming victory against Arab Knesset members who were against the magazine’s circulation because its front cover featured a cartoon drawing of the Prophet Muhammad.
“The High Court’s decision to allow the distribution of Charlie Hebdo is an important message that Israel remains a Jewish and democratic state and that we shouldn’t give in to threats and violence by Arab members of Knesset who are trying to turn Israel into another Islamic State country,” he said.
The Central Elections Committee had ruled earlier in February against Yisrael Beytenu’s plan to distribute complementary copies of Charlie Hebdo, saying such action constituted illegal gift-giving to voters.
Explaining his decision at the time, committee head Justice Salim Joubran said giving out the magazine would constitute election propaganda.
Arab parties had petitioned against the move, citing election regulations but also the danger of infuriating Israel’s Muslim population due to the cover.
Liberman had ordered his party activists to buy up and hand out copies of the “survivors’ issue” of the satirical magazine, featuring a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad, after a local bookstore backed out of selling it at the last minute.
The issue was released amid an international wave of support for the French weekly in the wake of a terror attack on its editorial offices in Paris that left 12 people dead.
Charlie Hebdo has in the past angered some Muslims by printing caricatures of Muhammad. The issue released in mid-January drew widespread protests across the Muslim world, including in Gaza.
Times of Israel staff and AFP contributed to this report.