Extremist Otzma Yehudit demands top posts after leader banned from Knesset run

After court bars Michael Ben Ari, party demands ministerial spot for Baruch Marzel in next coalition, and that Itamar Ben Gvir head key Knesset committee

Otzma Yehudit party members Michael Ben Ari, center, Itamar Ben Gvir, right, and Baruch Marzel, left, at a press conference in response to the Supreme Court decision to disqualify Ben Ari from running in the April 2019 elections over his record of racist incitement, in Jerusalem on March 17, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Otzma Yehudit party members Michael Ben Ari, center, Itamar Ben Gvir, right, and Baruch Marzel, left, at a press conference in response to the Supreme Court decision to disqualify Ben Ari from running in the April 2019 elections over his record of racist incitement, in Jerusalem on March 17, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The extremist Otzma Yehudit party issued a new series of demands to its partners in the upcoming elections after the High Court of Justice on Sunday barred the leader of the party Michael Ben Ari from running for parliament. It wants another party member, Baruch Marzel, to be promised a ministerial position in the next coalition, and Itamar Ben Gvir, Ben Ari’s deputy, to head a key Knesset committee.

In an 8-1 vote, the justices voted Sunday evening in favor of a petition calling for Ben Ari to be disqualified over his anti-Arab ideology and incitement, overturning a decision by the Central Elections Committee to approve his candidacy last week.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit had urged the court to ban Ben Ari for his overt racism.

The ruling marked the first time in the court’s history that the candidacy of an individual, rather than a party or faction, has been barred.

After the decision, Otzma Yehudit sent a list of new demands to the Jewish Home party, which is leading a joint election slate called the Union of Right Wing Parties that also includes Otzma Yehudit and the National Union.

Otzma Yehudit demanded that Ben Gvir, the second Otzma Yehudit candidate on the URWP slate, be moved up from eighth to fifth position on the joint party list for the elections, and that he be promised the chair of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee in the Knesset.

Ben Ari, who served as an MK with the National Union party in 2009-2012, was fifth on the URWP slate. Ben Gvir is set to move up to seventh in the wake of the ban on Ben Ari.

By law, parties cannot shuffle their slates in the last several weeks before elections, after having been formally submitted to the Central Elections Committee.

The extreme right party also demanded that Marzel, another Otzma Yehudit leader, be given a ministerial spot if the party enters the coalition. Parties are allowed to appoint non-elected politicians to ministerial positions.

Party activists told the Ynet news site that these demands were needed in order to ensure that its supporters would still turn out to back the united slate in the wake of Ben Ari’s disqualification.

Otzma Yehudit party members Michael Ben Ari (L), and Itamar Ben Gvir (R) speak during a press conference held in response to the High Court decision to disqualify Ben Ari’s candidacy for the upcoming Knesset elections, in Jerusalem on March 17, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The court cleared Ben Ari’s fellow Otzma Yehudit party member Ben Gvir to run.

Ben Ari responded to the decision by condemning the “judicial junta that seeks to take over our lives.”

Ben Ari had 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.

Mandelblit, the attorney general, had 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.

Last week, the court held a heated discussion on the candidacy of Ben Ari and fellow party member Ben Gvir, with representatives from the State Prosecutor’s Office urging the former’s disqualification from running in the upcoming elections.

In the 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.”

Otzma Yehudit party’s Michael Ben Ari and Itamar Ben Gvir (R) attend a hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, on March 14, 2019. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

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.”

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.”

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%. He promised Jewish Home two ministerial posts in his next government, and gave a Jewish Home member the 28th slot on the Likud Knesset slate.

However, the specter of Otzma Yehudit gaining one or more seats in the Knesset has drawn criticism from Israeli lawmakers and major Jewish groups around the world.

AFP contributed to this report.

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