Ben Gvir, Marzel, Gopstein also okayed; High Ct must approve

Knesset panel narrowly okays election run by Otzma Yehudit as Labor rep vanishes

Bid to disqualify Kahanist party falls short after Labor leader’s brother-in-law disappears during vote, leaving committee tied 15-15; other left parties accuse Labor of betrayal

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir defends his party at a Central Elections Committee debate on August 14, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir defends his party at a Central Elections Committee debate on August 14, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The Central Elections Committee on Wednesday narrowly struck down several petitions seeking to disqualify the extremist Otzma Yehudit party from running in the September 17 elections.

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.

The committee, led by a Supreme Court justice and made up of representatives of the outgoing Knesset’s political factions, approved the far-right party to run in next month’s election re-do in a tie vote after a raucous debate.

The petitions to have Otzma Yehudit disqualified were rejected because one of the two Labor Party representatives on the Knesset committee was absent during the vote. The missing party official was identified as Sammy Sasson, brother-in-law of Labor Party leader Amir Peretz.

Labor later called his absence a “human error” and said it was investigating the incident.

Labor was among the parties who petitioned the committee in a bid to prevent the disciples of the extremist rabbi Meir Kahane from running in the elections.

Labor’s leadership immediately came under criticism by other left-wing parties, who blamed the beleaguered party for leaving the committee with a tied vote.

Democratic Camp party said Sasson’s absence and the subsequent approval of Otzma’s run was an “abandonment of their constituents.”

“It’s over: [Orly] Levy-Abekasis, [Amir] Peretz and [Itzik] Shmuli are firmly on the right. Labor has just embarrassingly abandoned its voters who are opposed to racism and to Kahanists, and are fighting those dark forces in Israeli society,” the party said in a statement.

Blue and White no. 2 Yair Lapid called the vote “a scandal.”

“There was a majority in favor of disqualifying Otzma, but the Labor Party representative was nowhere to be found,” he tweeted shortly after the decision. “If their racism reaches the Knesset it will be Labor’s fault.”

After the vote, the elections committee debated separate petitions urging disqualification of three Ben Gvir,  Marzel and Gopstein. Committee chairman Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer agreed to a request that petitioners delay the votes in light of the missing Labor official.

Otzma Yehudit leaders have described themselves as proud disciples of the late 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 to 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 week, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said Marzel and Gopstein’s long record of virulent racist statements against Arabs was grounds for disqualification under Israel’s anti-racism laws, but said there was no grounds to bar Ben Gvir or the entire party from the race.

During the debate, Ben Gvir defended his party and insisted that he did not harbor racist sentiments towards Arabs.

“Everything that I’ve said and done has been out of my desire to stop assimilation,” he said. Ben Gvir went on to explain that the “Jewish democracy” envisioned by his party would mean that “Ahmad Tibi won’t be allowed to be a Knesset member, because he opposes the existence of Israel.”

Left-wing lawmaker Stav Shaffir called Otzma Yehudit “anti-Zionist” and “anti-democratic,” sparking cries of protest from Ben Gvir and other party members attending the debate. Committee chairman Melcer ordered Shaffir’s microphone cut off after she ignored several calls to finish her comments.

The committee’s decisions are not final and require the approval of the High Court of Justice. The petitioners are expected to appeal the decision to the High Court in the coming days.

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