Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit urged the High Court of Justice to disqualify the head of a far-right party from running in the general elections, citing his long history of “severe and extreme” racism.
Michael Ben Ari, party leader of Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), has faced multiple appeals 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.
Ben Ari has insisted he is not a racist and that recent remarks highlighted in a High Court of Justice petition against him — and by Mandelblit — were taken out of context.
But in an opinion submitted Wednesday to the High Court, Mandelblit argued that a decision on Ben Ari’s candidacy was an open-and-shut case, according to a summary of the opinion publicized by the Justice Ministry.
“Most if not all” of Ben Ari’s political statements constitute incitement to racism and “relate to the Arab public in its entirety, and not [as Ben Ari has claimed] only to those who were involved in terrorism,” wrote the attorney general.
Ben Ari’s racism, Mandelblit added, “constitutes the candidate’s central and overriding goal…[and is] a defining expression of his identity as a candidate.” Ben Ari “acts to realize these [racist] goals in order to turn them from idea to reality, and his candidacy is intended to serve these goals.”
Mandelblit reached the opposite conclusion about Otzma Yehudit’s no. 2 candidate, Itamar Ben Gvir, who the attorney general argues should be allowed to run.
Ben Gvir’s statements about Arabs are also “severe and unpleasant,” Mandelblit told the High Court, according to the summary, and he sometimes “approaches the prohibited line.” But, Mandelblit concluded, there isn’t enough “clear and unambiguous” evidence that Ben Gvir has actively incited to racism to deny him a right as fundamental as standing for public office.
Ben Ari, who served as an MK from 2009-12 with the National Union party, is fifth on the slate of the Union of Right-Wing Parties, a merger of Otzma Yehudit with the 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.
Mandelblit was asked by the committee to offer his opinion on Ben Ari and Ben Gvir at the time, and submitted an opinion similar to the one handed to the High Court on Wednesday.
At the time, Ben Gvir called Mandelblit’s recommendation “an assassination attempt” against his party’s political aspirations, and said justice officials were trying to thwart Otzma Yehudit’s stated intention of getting a representative onto the Judicial Appointments Committee.
Among the statements from Ben Ari highlighted both in appeals against his candidacy and in Mandelblit’s opinions was one from August 2018, when Ben Ari stated, “We have to change the equation regarding anyone who dares to speak against a Jew. [Such a person] is a dead man. He must not come out alive. No expelling him, no stripping him of his citizenship. He does not live! A firing squad takes him out as the Arabs understand [best].”
Ben Ari claimed earlier this month in an interview with Channel 12 that he was referring in those remarks to the leadership of Hamas, not to all Arabs.
“We’re not against all Arabs. Only those that are not loyal to the State of Israel,” Ben Gvir added, as Ben Ari nodded in agreement.
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.