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Ben Gvir, Netanyahu agree to legislate to end ban on MKs who incite to racism

Otzma Yehudit says Likud has agreed to enact major change to Basic Law as part of coalition deal; move appears to be a bid to allow Ben Gvir’s barred far-right colleagues to run

Head of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party Itamar Ben Gvir (C) with Bentzi Gopstein (R) and Baruch Marzel (L) at the launch of the party's election campaign in Jerusalem on February 15, 2020. (Sindel/Flash90)
File: Head of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party Itamar Ben Gvir (C) with Bentzi Gopstein (R) and Baruch Marzel (L) at the launch of the party's election campaign in Jerusalem on February 15, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed to a demand by far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir to pass legislation that will end a ban on individuals who incite to racism serving in the Knesset, Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit said Thursday.

According to the party, legislation will be introduced to remove the clause in Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Law: The Knesset stipulating that those inciting to racism will be disqualified from running for parliament.

That same clause was introduced by the Knesset in 1985 and successfully blocked the racist Kach party, led by extremist rabbi Meir Kahane of whom Ben Gvir is a disciple, from returning to parliament.

Otzma Yehudit said earlier reports that the changes will also include removing a clause disqualifying those who reject Israel as a Jewish and democratic state were incorrect.

Likud has yet to finalize the deal with Otzma Yehudit, or any of its deals with right-wing and religious coalition partners, and is set to do so in the next few days.

The move appears to be a bid by Ben Gvir, the Otzma Yehudit leader, to allow far-right allies barred from the Knesset over racist comments and positions to run for parliament in the future.

In 2019, the High Court banned Otzma Yehudit’s Baruch Marzel, Bentzi Gopstein and former party head Michael Ben-Ari from participating in elections that year, citing clause 7a.

Ben-Ari said however that he did not want the clause removed on his behalf, because he does not consider himself a racist.

Gopstein leads the racist Lehava organization, which opposes interfaith and interethnic interaction, relationships and marriages. Marzel led extremist rabbi Meir Kahane’s Kach party after its founder’s 1990 murder, and has long been identified with the faction’s goal of forcibly cleansing the country of Arabs.

Ben-Ari, a former MK, was warned in August that the state prosecution was mulling charging him for promoting racism toward Arabs over a period of years.

Ben-Ari and Marzel have in recent months criticized Ben Gvir as “ideologically flexible” for seemingly taking less extreme positions during his Knesset run.

Otzma Yehudit candidates Baruch Marzel, right, and Itamar Ben Gvir, center, arrive at a hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on petitions to disqualify their party from running in the September 2019 elections, on August 22, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While coalition deals are not legally binding, if the agreement is to become reality, the trio would be permitted to run in the country’s next election cycle.

The report said Otzma Yehudit had argued that the law had only been used “unequally to target the right.”

Responding to the planned move, Hadash-Ta’al MK Ahmed Tibi said sarcastically that Marzel, Gopstein and Ben-Ari would not be the only ones to benefit.

“Why stop [there]? In the future, Ami Popper and the Duma killers too. Yigal Amir as well, there’s no bottom to the barrel,” he tweeted, referring to infamous Jewish terrorists and the assassin who killed prime minister Yitzak Rabin.

Labor party head Merav Michaeli claimed that most of the coalition parties were already discriminatory, such as the ethnocentric ultra-Orthodox parties UTJ and Shas, anti-Arab Religious Zionism and “Jewish supremacist” Otzma Yehudit.

“Look at yourselves. Why even bother canceling [the clause]?” she asked on Facebook.

The head of the liberal Israel Religious Action Center accused Netanyahu of “giving a stamp of approval to the worst kind of flagrant racist incitement” by agreeing to the legislation.

“The incoming PM’s capitulation to the demands of his racist and extremist coalition partners undermines every ethical foundation of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” IRAC director Orly Erez-Likhovski said in a statement.

Netanyahu was reported to have agreed to the deal as part of last-minute coalition negotiations, which saw the incoming prime minister announce his success in forming a government just minutes before the midnight deadline Wednesday night, over a month after receiving the mandate from President Isaac Herzog.

Israel’s largest party and a right-wing powerhouse, Likud will be on the left flank of the prime minister-designate’s incoming coalition. Far-right Otzma Yehudit, Religious Zionism and Noam, as well as Netanyahu’s long-time ultra-Orthodox partners Shas and United Torah Judaism, round out the 64-seat majority coalition in Israel’s 120-member Knesset.

Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report.

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