The Supreme Court on Thursday held a heated discussion on the candidacy of far-right Otzma Yehudit members Michael Ben Ari and Itamar Ben Gvir, with representatives from the State Prosecutor’s Office urging the former’s disqualification from running in the upcoming elections.
Ben Ari, leader of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party — now a part of the Union of Right-Wing Parties — has faced multiple bids to outlaw his candidacy under Article 7A of the Basic Law: The Knesset, which lists “incitement to racism” as one of three actions that disqualify a candidate from running for Knesset. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has urged the court to bar him, citing his long history of “severe and extreme” racism.
Ben Ari has insisted he is not a racist and that recent remarks highlighted in the current appeal against him were taken out of context. He says he is against those disloyal to Israel as a Jewish state, not all Arabs.
In the Thursday hearing, Aner Helman of the state prosecution argued that the former National Union MK has been inciting to racism for years and that in his recorded speeches throughout his career, he does not make a distinction between the general Arab public and enemies of the state. He said that for Ben Ari, Arabs “have no faces, they are all traitors, a fifth column, and a murderous nation.”
Helman said it wasn’t only Ben Ari’s words that should lead to him being barred from running in the elections, but also his tactics, such as making fiery remarks shortly after terror attacks, during “difficult moments when everyone’s blood is boiling.”
Ben Ari, who served as an MK with the National Union party in 2009-2012, is fifth on the slate of the Union of Right-Wing Parties, a merger of Otzma Yehudit with Jewish Home and National Union. Ben Gvir is eighth on the joint ticket.
On March 6, the Central Elections Committee narrowly rejected appeals against Otzma Yehudit’s Knesset run by a vote of 16 to 15.
Justice Uzi Fogelman criticized Ben Ari, highlighting a rally he led in the northern town of Afula against a tender that was open for all its residents, including Arab Israelis. Ben Ari claimed during the protest that the tender “has been opened to the enemy as a form of equal rights.”
“That sentence is crystal clear,” Fogelman said. “It clarifies Ben Ari’s lexicon of useful terms. This is where this masquerade is revealed. What context of national struggle is there in this case concerning a citizen who wants to live in Afula?”
The judges later cited remarks about Arabs made by Ben Ari’s on a separate occasion, in May 2018: “We need to call it as it is — they are our enemy, they want to annihilate us. Of course there are loyal Arabs, but they can be counted as one percent and less than that. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of them are full partners to their brothers in Gaza.”
Ben Ari’s legal representative Itzhak Bam responded that his client had “no problem” with Arab Israelis who are loyal to the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people.
Asked by Justice Yitzhak Amit if 99% of Arab Israelis are considered “enemies” if they do not identify with that viewpoint, Ben Ari’s attorney confirmed, “That’s the logic.” He added that it was hard to know the number today since “anyone who expresses those views is ostracized, condemned.”
At one point, MK Bezalel Smotrich, the Union of Right Wing Parties No. 2, interrupted the hearing from the audience, in what developed into a highly unusual exchange with Chief Justice Esther Hayut.
Hayut told Smotrich to behave according to the court norms, since “this isn’t the Knesset.”
Smotrich retorted by saying he took that remark as “disrespect for the Knesset,” and added: “I respect the court, and I ask you to respect the Knesset and its representatives. We respect you and we represent the governing authority and I ask you not to disrespect us.”
Hayut responded that Smotrich “won’t make interjections and won’t shout. The Knesset has interjections and it’s acceptable, but here it isn’t customary.” She said her remark about the Knesset was only referring to the difference in norms between the parliament and the court, and meant no disrespect.
“Thanks for the clarification,” Smotrich then said.
“I don’t owe you a clarification,” Hayut responded.
Smotrich is an outspoken critic of the Supreme Court and has repeatedly expressed support for limiting its power, including by promoting a law that restricts its ability to shoot down laws passed by the Knesset.
Concerning Ben Gvir, Mandelblit has not urged the court to disqualify him and the state prosecution on Thursday said his was a “borderline” case, unlike Ben Ari.
The court also discussed the candidacy of the Ra’am-Balad party, which the Central Elections Committee voted last week to bar over alleged support for violent resistance. Ra’am-Balad is one of two main Arab alliances running in the April 9 general election.
Its candidacy had been challenged by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, under laws disqualifying those who challenge the definition of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state or who back armed opposition to it.
Ra’am-Balad appealed against its ban to the Supreme Court. The committee’s decision to bar it from running went against a recommendation by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who said the evidence presented against the party was old and a previous attempt to disqualify it had been overruled in court.
After four hours of separate hearings on each petition the panel of nine justices retired without handing down any decision.
After the discussion ended, Ben Gvir was filmed having a shouting match with Ra’am-Balad Knesset candidate Ata Abu Madighem outside the courtroom, telling at him: “Terrorist, if you aren’t loyal you should be deported.”
Abu Madighem yelled back: “You are scum, you are garbage.”
Otzma Yehudit leaders have described themselves as proud disciples of the late rabbi Meir Kahane, who supported violently expelling Arabs from Israel and the West Bank and once proposed legislation outlawing inter-ethnic sexual relations. Kahane’s Kach party was declared illegal by Israeli authorities.
Otzma Yehudit now says it supports encouraging emigration of non-Jews from Israel, and expelling Palestinians and Arab Israelis who refuse to declare loyalty to Israel and accept diminished status in an expanded Jewish state, whose sovereignty extends throughout the West Bank.
Ben Gvir is among several Otzma Yehudit leaders who has a photograph of mass-murderer Baruch Goldstein hanging on a wall in his home. Goldstein killed 29 Muslim worshipers and wounded another 125 in a shooting rampage at Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs holy site in 1994.
The party’s union with Jewish Home was orchestrated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month in an effort to prevent losing right-wing votes if the individual parties failed to cross the Knesset threshold of 3.25%. However, the specter of Otzma Yehudit gaining a seat in the Knesset has drawn criticism from Israeli lawmakers and major Jewish groups around the world.
AFP contributed to this report.