In a contentious hearing punctuated by protests from outside the courtroom, the High Court of Justice on Thursday heard left-wing petitions to disqualify the extremist Otzma Yehudit political party from running in the September elections, and right-wing ones to disqualify several Arab-majority factions.
One of Otzma Yehudit’s leaders, Bentzi Gopstein, who is personally named in the petitions against the party, boycotted the hearing, telling reporters that “the game is fixed. The judges already made their decision [to disqualify me] before the hearing.”
Gopstein leads the Lehava activist group that opposes interfaith and interethnic marriage. Lehava activists have staged violent protests outside Jewish-Muslim weddings and in the past called on the public to inform on any Jewish women dating non-Jewish men.
“All my activism is only to prevent assimilation,” Gopstein said Thursday. “That’s not racism, it’s Judaism. There’s no doubt that the Law of Return would be overturned by this panel [of judges] too.”
Nine justices sat on Thursday’s panel, led by Chief Justice Esther Hayut. The court is slated to reconvene on Sunday to hand down its decisions.
Under Israeli election law, parties or candidates can be disqualified from running due to incitement to racism, rejecting the country’s identification as a Jewish and democratic state, or for supporting armed action against Israel by hostile states or terror groups.
The disqualification process begins in the Central Elections Committee, led by a Supreme Court justice and made up of representatives of the outgoing Knesset’s political factions. But the law requires that the committee’s decisions be confirmed by the Supreme Court, which has the final say.
On August 14, the Central Elections Committee narrowly rejected petitions against Otzma Yehudit in a tie vote after a raucous debate.
It also later gave the go ahead for three of Otzma Yehudit’s leaders, Itamar Ben Gvir, Baruch Marzel and Bentzi Gopstein to run in the elections by a vote of 17 to 16.
In the Thursday hearing, the petitioners against Otzma Yehudit argued that the party and its leading candidates have a long history of explicit advocacy for racist ideas and policies.
The faction’s leaders Itamar Ben Gvir, Baruch Marzel and Gopstein, “who carry the torch of [extremist rabbi Meir] Kahane and the banned Kach movement, reject Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state,” argues the petition from the Blue and White party, which was presented to the court in the hearing. The faction also “seeks to act against the foundational values of democracy, equality and dignity, and against the rule of law and an independent judiciary.”
“We can’t let incitement and racism be given a seat of honor in parliament,” Blue and White MK Karine Elharrar said in the hearing. “We won’t let Gopstein, Marzel and Ben Gvir become the face of Israel.”
Otzma Yehudit leaders have described themselves as proud disciples of the late rabbi 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.
Otzma Yehudit’s former No. 1, Michael Ben Ari, was barred from running in the April elections by the Supreme Court under anti-racism laws, and was replaced at the party’s helm by Ben Gvir.
In a legal opinion submitted to the committee earlier this month, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit singled out Marzel and Gopstein, saying their long record of virulent racist statements against Arabs was grounds for disqualification under Israel’s election laws.
Mandelblit added that he opposed disqualifying the party as a whole or its current head Ben Gvir, whose expressed views “skirted the line,” but did not clearly step over it.
Otzma Yehudit is currently polling below the vote threshold and appears unlikely to enter the Knesset.
The court also heard petitions by far-right activists and right-wing parties against the Joint (Arab) List, an alliance of Arab-majority factions that represent a broad ideological and cultural spectrum in the Arab community.
Several Arab lawmakers and candidates arrived at the court hearing, and were harangued outside the chamber by far-right activists, apparently linked to Otzma Yehudit.
“Get them out of here, they’re wicked,” protesters shouted, while some approached the Arab candidates to berate them.
Right-wing political forces have regularly petitioned to disqualify those parties on the grounds that they do not support Israel’s identification as a Jewish state. Ahead of the April 2019 race, the Central Elections Committee accepted one such petition and voted to disqualify Balad, the most stridently anti-Zionist of the Arab factions, but the decision was overturned by the High Court.
The Supreme Court is unlikely to disqualify the Joint List, having repeatedly thrown out petitions to bar Arab parties and politicians from running for the Knesset. Justices have argued that the court should tread lightly when considering denying a right as basic as running for election, and should demand overwhelming evidence and a clear-cut violation of the election law.
In a mid-August vote, the elections committee voted 17 to 12 to allow the Joint List to run in the election.
The High Court’s rulings are expected Sunday.