The Central Elections Committee narrowly approved the Knesset candidacy of Otzma Yehudit chairman Michael Ben Ari on Wednesday, rejecting petitions that claimed he should be banned for inciting racism, including one supported by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.
The petitions against both Ben Ari and the party’s second representative, Itamar Ben Gvir, were struck down 16 to 15 by the committee, which is made up of representatives from each party from the outgoing Knesset, based on faction size. However, the battle over Otzma Yehudit’s candidacy is expected to continue as Tamar Zandberg, the head of the left-wing Meretz party that was among those that submitted the rejected petition, vowed after the vote to appeal to the High Court of Justice.
Ben Ari is fifth on the slate of the Union of Right-Wing Parties, a merger of Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) with the Jewish Home and National Union parties. Ben Gvir is eighth on the joint ticket.
In a legal opinion drafted Tuesday in response to one of several petitions filed against the far-right faction, Mandelblit drew a distinction between Ben Ari and Ben Gvir, recommending approving the candidacy only of the latter.
In praising the election committee’s decision Wednesday, Ben Gvir recommended that Mandelblit “search his soul.” He called the attorney general’s position “an attempted assassination” against the political aspirations of his party, and said justice officials were trying to thwart Otzma Yehudit’s stated intention of getting a representative into the nation’s Judicial Selection Committee.
Speaking to Channel 12 after the narrow victory, Ben Ari asserted he was not a racist and that recent remarks highlighted in the petition against him had taken his words out of context.
Among the statements from the Otzma Yehudit chairman highlighted in the petition 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 to Channel 12 that he was referring to the Hamas leadership in those remarks.
“We’re not against all Arabs. Only those that are not loyal to the State of Israel,” Ben Gvir chimed in, as Ben Ari nodded in agreement.
At the start of the election committee’s deliberation on Wednesday, Ben Gvir caused a ruckus when he charged that Labor MKs Stav Shaffir and Michal Biran had “gone from place to place calling us Nazis.” He tried to hand Shaffir a notice of a libel suit demanding NIS 500,000 in damages, which he said he had filed earlier in the day at the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court. Shaffir refused to take the notice and the first of many shouting matches between Otzma Yehudit and left-wing MKs ensued.
For her part, Zandberg called the committee’s decision “embarrassing” and claimed the representatives “decided to ignore the attorney general’s position and save the Kahanists, [thereby] disgracing the Knesset.”
The committee also went on to approve the technical union of Otzma Yehudit and Jewish Home in the Union of Right Wing Parties, a merger whose members claim will be terminated after the election. Only one member voted against the move, 25 voted in favor and five abstained.
Otzma Yehudit leaders have described themselves as proud disciples of the late ultra-nationalist rabbi Meir 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 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 Prime Minister Benjamin 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.
Ben Ari is a former National Union MK who broke away from the party in order to start a new far-right faction in 2012. This, in turn, went on to become Otzma Yehudit. Ben Gvir is an attorney-activist known for representing Jewish terror suspects.