Right seethes, left cheers as top court disqualifies far-right candidate Ben Ari

New Right’s Bennett and Shaked say the ‘justices have left us no choice but to act — and powerfully’ to limit their powers; opposition figures say ‘good riddance’

Otzma Yehudit party member Michael Ben Ari speaks during a press conference held in response to the High Court decision to disqualify his candidacy for the upcoming Knesset elections. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Otzma Yehudit party member Michael Ben Ari speaks during a press conference held in response to the High Court decision to disqualify his candidacy for the upcoming Knesset elections. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Right-wing politicians on Sunday reacted with anger and left-wingers applauded as the High Court of Justice decided to bar the leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, Michael Ben Ari, from running in the upcoming elections.

There was one dissenting opinion among the nine justices who ruled to disqualify Ben Ari over his anti-Arab ideology and incitement after the Central Elections Committee, which is mainly made up of politicians and is chaired by a justice, narrowly approved his candidacy last week.

The court on Sunday approved the candidacy of Ra-am Balad, an Arab party, far-left Jewish candidate Ofer Kassif, and Otzma Yehudit’s Itamar Ben Gvir.

Speaking to media after the court had ruled to bar him, Ben Ari condemned the “judicial junta which seeks to take over our lives.”

The ruling marked the first time that the candidacy of an individual, rather than a party or faction, has been barred from running for the Knesset.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said the decision was “gross, misguided interference” in Israel’s democratic process and that she would on Monday unveil her plan to complete her “judicial revolution” in what she hopes will be another term in office at the head of the Justice Ministry.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who along with Shaked has formed the New Right party, vowed to work to clip the wings of the judiciary now that a “red line” has been crossed.

“The High Court justices crossed a red line this evening. They disqualified a man whose two sons serve in the Israel Defense Forces, and approved a party that supports terrorists,’ he wrote on Twitter, referring to Balad. “The justices have left us no choice but to act — and powerfully.”

The New Right party co-leaders Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett hold a press conference in Tel Aviv on March 17, 2019. (Flash90)

Both Bennett and Shaked have long sought to curtail the court’s power through Knesset legislation.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein of Likud described the court’s decision to disqualify Ben Ari as “harsh,” but also warned that “the entire public will pay a dear price” over the court’s decision on Balad. “A party that denies the right of the State of Israel to exist and gives legitimacy to harming Israeli soldiers has no place in the legislature,” he said.

Ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism, a party that has often criticized the court for many decisions on matters of religion and state, said that “this time, the judges have outdone themselves by determining that they are the electorate and not the people.”

Tamar Zandberg of left-wing Meretz, whose party petitioned the court against Ben Ari’s candidacy, said the court’s decision was “an important, well-founded legal ruling” and warned against Shaked’s threat to act against the court.

Meretz party leader MK Tamar Zandberg in Tel Aviv on February 14, 2019. (Flash90)

“The justice minister is turning the incitement against the High Court into her main political campaign. It is vital that all parties stand firm in support of the independence of the Supreme Court and the rule of law. Meretz commits to doing so,” she said.

And Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay wished “good riddance” to Ben Ari and thanked the court for not allowing him “to be elected to the Knesset under the auspices of Netanyahu.”

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.

Avichai Mandelblit, Israel’s 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 appeal against him were taken out of context.

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.

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%. 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.

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