The High Court of Justice on Sunday barred the leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party Michael Ben Ari from running in the upcoming elections, while approving the candidacy of an Arab party slate and a far-left Jewish candidate.
In an 8-1 vote, the justices voted in favor of a petition calling for Ben Ari to be disqualified over his anti-Arab ideology and incitement after the Central Elections Committee narrowly approved his candidacy last week. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit had urged the court to ban Ben Ari for racism.
The ruling marks the first time in the court’s history that the candidacy of an individual, rather than party or faction, has been barred.
Ben Ari responded to the decision by condemning the “judicial junta which seeks to take over our lives.”
The court cleared Ben Ari’s fellow Otzma Yehudit party member, Itamar Ben Gvir, to run.
Justices also ruled that Ofer Kassif and the Balad-Ra’am factions could run in the April 9 elections. Kassif is the sole Jewish candidate on the Hadash-Ta’al slate and was disqualified from running for the Knesset by the Central Elections Committee over past controversial statements, including one in which he called Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, “neo-Nazi scum.”
Sunday’s rulings reverse decisions by the Central Elections Committee, which last week disqualified Ra’am-Balad and Kassif, but approved Ben Ari’s candidacy. Committee decisions require approval from the court.
Shaked, who seeks to limit the powers of the court, said that the judges, in barring Ben Ari “while declaring terror-backing parties kosher,” had carried out “crass and misguided interference in the heart of Israeli democracy.”
Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am-Balad are the two main Arab alliances running in the April 9 general election. The latter’s candidacy had been challenged by right-wing parties, under laws disqualifying those who challenge the definition of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, or who back armed opposition to it.
Ra’am-Balad appealed against its ban to the Supreme Court on the basis that the committee’s decision to bar it from running went against a recommendation by Attorney General Mandelblit, who said the evidence presented against the party was dated and a previous attempt to disqualify it had been overruled in court.
Ra’am-Balad welcomed the justices’ decision on Sunday, saying the original ruling was a “political decision that has no evidentiary basis, that once again failed to pass the High Court tests.”
“We are proud of our identity, our democratic vision, and call upon the democratic public in Israel, Arabs and Jews alike, to unite around the slate against the campaign of incitement and delegitimization against Arab society and its elected officials,” the faction’s statement read.
Ben Ari, leader of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party — now a part of the Union of Right-Wing Parties — has 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, has 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.”
Ben Ari, who served as an MK with the National Union party in 2009-2012, is fifth on the slate of the Union of Right-Wing Parties, a merger of Otzma Yehudit with Jewish Home and National Union. Ben Gvir is eighth on the joint ticket, and will now move up to seventh.
Jewish Home party head Rafi Peretz reacted to Sunday’s ruling, issuing a statement saying: “In the State of Israel, there is democracy in appearance only. The judiciary has taken the right to choose for Israeli citizens in an unprecedented manner. Kassif and Tibi are in, but Ben Ari, a Zionist Jew whose sons serve in the IDF, is out.”
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.”
Ben Ari’s legal representative Itzhak Bam responded that his client had “no problem” with Arab Israelis who are loyal to the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people.
Asked by Justice Yitzhak Amit if 99% of Arab Israelis are considered “enemies” if they do not identify with that viewpoint, Ben Ari’s attorney confirmed, “That’s the logic.” He added that it was hard to know the number today since “anyone who expresses those views is ostracized, condemned.”
After the discussion ended, Ben Gvir was filmed having a shouting match with Ra’am-Balad Knesset candidate Ata Abu Madighem outside the courtroom, telling at him: “Terrorist, if you aren’t loyal you should be deported.”
Abu Madighem yelled back: “You are scum, you are garbage.”
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 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.
AFP contributed to this report.