Elections body holds raucous debate on disqualifying right-wing extremist

Day after attorney general recommends barring Otzma Yehudit leader Michael Ben Ari from running, shouting matches and a libel lawsuit reach the Knesset

Members of the extremist Otzma Yehudit party, chairman Michael Ben Ari, left, and number two Itamar Ben Gvir, right, attend a meeting of the Central Elections Committee in the Knesset on March 6, 2019 to discuss appeals calling for Ben Ari's disqualification from running in the April Knesset elections. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Members of the extremist Otzma Yehudit party, chairman Michael Ben Ari, left, and number two Itamar Ben Gvir, right, attend a meeting of the Central Elections Committee in the Knesset on March 6, 2019 to discuss appeals calling for Ben Ari's disqualification from running in the April Knesset elections. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Elections officials debated Wednesday whether to disqualify extremist Otzma Yehudit candidate Michael Ben Ari from running for the Knesset, a day after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit backed a petition against Ben Ari’s candidacy.

The debate during a meeting of the Central Elections Committee in the Knesset quickly turned heated, with a member of Otzma Yehudit trying to hand a notice of a libel lawsuit to two Labor party MKs and a shouting match between the same Otzma Yehudit member and an Arab lawmaker from Meretz.

Ben Ari is fifth on the slate of the Union of Right-Wing Parties, an amalgam of Jewish Home, National Union and Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power). In a legal opinion drafted in response to one of several petitions filed against the far-right slate, Mandelblit drew a distinction between Ben Ari and the party’s number two, attorney-activist Itamar Ben Gvir, recommending approving the candidacy of the latter.

It was Ben Gvir, however, who caused the ruckus on Wednesday. He charged that Labor MKs Stav Shaffir and Michal Biran had “gone from place to place calling us Nazis,” and tried to hand Shaffir in the committee room notice of a libel suit demanding NIS 500,000 in damages. Ben Gvir said he had filed the suit earlier Wednesday in the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court.

Itamar Ben Gvir of the extremist Otzma Yehudit party (R) shouts at Labor party member Stav Shafir (L) at the Central Elections Committee for the 21st Knesset elections, March 6, 2019 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

As an attorney, Ben Gvir has made a practice of defending Jewish Israelis accused of terrorist attacks against Arabs.

Shaffir was unfazed. “Kahane’s disciples are accustomed to making threats, but this time it won’t work. They can’t threaten me, and they won’t threaten the citizens of Israel any longer. We’ll make sure to remove these violent and inciting racists, the heirs to the legacy of Kahane, whom Likud has also compared to Nazi [racial purity] laws, from the parliament of the only state the Jewish people have,” she said.

Ben Gvir also got into a shouting match with Meretz lawmaker Issawi Frej, who called him a racist. Ben Gvir retorted, “You think you’re on the [Mavi] Marmara,” the ship that led a 2010 Turkish flotilla that sought to bust the naval blockade on the Gaza Strip. When IDF commandos boarded the ship, activists attacked them and wounded 10, one seriously. Nine passengers were killed in the melee and one died years later of his wounds.

Meretz lawmaker Issawi Frej, left, addressing Likud MK David Bitan, right, outside the meeting of the Central Elections Committee in the Knesset on March 6, 2019 concerning the Knesset bid of the extremist Otzma Yehudit party. Meretz chair MK Tamar Zandberg is center. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Outside the committee room, Frej shouted at Ben Gvir and others standing nearby, “I as an Arab have to tolerate this racist? You as Jews should be ashamed! I’m fighting for my existence in this country.”

He turned to Likud MK David Bitan, charging, “You’re bringing into the Knesset on a red carpet supporters of transfer! This kind of racism made the Holocaust.”

“Transfer” is a policy of expulsion of Arabs from Israel, advocated by some on the right.

In backing the disqualification of Ben Ari, Mandelblit explained Tuesday that his decision leaned heavily on recent public remarks made by the candidate, some of which were posted on Otzma Yehudit’s Facebook page.

According to the attorney general, the quotes clearly indicate that Ben Ari incites in an extreme and illegal fashion against Israel’s Arab and other minority populations. Among the statements highlighted by Mandelblit was one from August 2018 in which 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.”

In a speech from November 2017, also cited by the attorney general, Ben Ari said of the Palestinians: “We give them another 100,000 dunams [thinking] maybe they will love us. In the end, yes, they do love us — slaughtered… Rabbi Kahane taught us that there is no coexistence with them.”

Otzma Yehudit candidate Itamar Ben Gvir attempts to hand Labor MK Stav Shaffir a notice of a libel lawsuit against her for allegedly calling his party ‘Nazis,’ at a meeting of the Central Elections Committee in the Knesset on March 6, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Otzma Yehudit’s leaders have also sought to restrict dating, sexual relations, and marriage between Arabs and Jews, among other measures.

Ben Ari on Wednesday slammed the attorney general as “politicized and domineering,” called his Tuesday opinion “sloppy,” and said he had “taken my words out of context.”

He didn’t specify what part of his comments were taken out of context, but said he was unfairly targeted for censure while Arab lawmakers were not.

Balad MK Hanin Zoabi “who went on the Marmara has been  approved twice [for a Knesset run by Mandelblit], but I’m a danger to the state?” Ben Ari asked in an Army Radio interview Wednesday morning.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks during a conference at the national library in Jerusalem on June 6, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The Central Elections Committee, made up of some 30 representatives of existing Knesset factions and chaired by a Supreme Court justice, is thought unlikely to disqualify Ben Ari.

The Yisrael Beytenu and New Right parties announced they would vote against the disqualification, while Kulanu has said it will not take part in the vote, leaving it unlikely that there is a majority for removing Ben Ari. Likud, whose leader Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu engineered the union between Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit to ensure the two right-wing factions enters the Knesset, is also thought unlikely to vote against Ben Ari at this stage.

“As long as they don’t disqualify [the Palestinian-nationalist party] Balad, you can’t disqualify them,” Yisrael Beytenu said in a statement Wednesday.

New Right, which has openly criticized Otzma Yehudit for rejecting a “Jewish and democratic Israel,” nevertheless defended Ben Ari’s candidacy Wednesday, saying the disqualification of even extremist Jewish groups without the disqualification of what New Right considers equivalent Arab ones was “hypocrisy.”

At issue isn’t Otzma Yehudit’s run for the Knesset, but Ben Ari’s specifically. If Ben Ari is disqualified, it pushes the next Otzma Yehudit candidate, Itamar Ben Gvir, to number seven on the Union of Right-Wing Parties list — possibly ensuring Otzma Yehudit will nevertheless be represented in the Knesset.

Parties are registered at the Central Elections Committee in the Knesset, where political parties running for a spot in the upcoming Israeli elections arrive to present their party slates, on February 21, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Otzma Yehudit is expected to break away from the URWP after the election and form its own Knesset faction. But it must get at least one candidate into the parliament to do so.

The election committee’s decision can be appealed to the High Court of Justice. The High Court has held numerous times that the right to run for election is a fundamental one, and has only disqualified candidates on extremely rare occasions.

The disqualification of Ben Ari’s spiritual leader, the late rabbi Meir Kahane, in the 1980s was upheld by the court on the grounds that he openly advocated racism and violence, which is illegal under Israeli election law.

Regarding Otzma Yehudit’s No. 2 candidate Ben Gvir, Mandelblit wrote that while the evidence against him of incitement was “extremely disturbing,” it was not enough to recommend that he be disqualified as well.

Otzma Yehudit leaders have described themselves as proud disciples of Kahane. The party supports encouraging emigration of non-Jews from Israel, and expelling Palestinians and Israeli Arabs who refuse to declare loyalty to Israel and to accept diminished status in an expanded Jewish state whose sovereignty extends throughout the West Bank.

The faction’s union with Jewish Home was orchestrated by Netanyahu in an effort to prevent votes being lost 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.

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