High Court: Extremist candidate’s Knesset run would have legitimized racism

Judges explain their decision to bar Michael Ben Ari, say ‘incitement to racism is a dominant and central goal of his doctrine’

Otzma Yehudit party member Michael Ben Ari is seen at a press conference in Jerusalem following the High Court of Justice's decision to bar him from running in upcoming Knesset elections, on March 17, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Otzma Yehudit party member Michael Ben Ari is seen at a press conference in Jerusalem following the High Court of Justice's decision to bar him from running in upcoming Knesset elections, on March 17, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The High Court of Justice on Thursday released a summary of its decision to ban an extremist candidate from participating in upcoming national elections, saying allowing him to run for the Knesset would legitimize racism.

The court voted 8-1 on Sunday in favor of a petition calling for Otzma Yehudit member Michael Ben Ari to be prohibited from running, due to his anti-Arab ideology and incitement. The decision came after the Central Elections Committee, which is made up of parties from the outgoing Knesset, had narrowly approved Ben Ari’s candidacy.

The decision to bar Ben Ari, which was recommended by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, was met with fury by right-wing lawmakers, who claimed it was an affront to Israel’s democracy.

Explaining their decision, the judges said permitting Ben Ari to take part in the elections would “give legitimacy to racist discourse as legitimate discourse in the State of Israel,” according to the Haaretz daily.

Ben Ari was disqualified for incitement to racism, one of three actions under Israeli law for which a candidate can be barred.

Supreme Court justices at a hearing about the disqualification of Hadash co-leader Dr. Ofer Cassif (unseen) from running in the elections, on March 13, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The judges said there was a “critical mass of proven and convincing evidence in its quality and quantity that included unequivocal, clear and harsh remarks repeated over the years — but with an emphasis on the last two — against the Arab public in Israel.”

They also noted Ben Ari did not express remorse for his remarks.

“In his actions and remarks, incitement to racism is a dominant and central goal of his doctrine,” the judges said.

Regarding fellow Otzma Yehudit candidate Itamar Ben Gvir, the judges said there was not sufficient evidence to prevent him from running.

Sunday’s 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.

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

Otzma Yehudit party members Michael Ben Ari (R) and Itamar Ben Gvir at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem for a hearing on the Central Elections Committee’s decision to disqualify the Balad-Ra’am faction from running in upcoming Knesset elections, March 13, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

In the hearing, Aner Helman of the state prosecution argued that the former National Union MK has been inciting 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.”

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 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.

In their ruling Sunday, the justices allowed Ofer Kassif and the Balad-Ra’am factions to 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.”

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