Supreme Court debates election disqualification of Jewish far-left candidate

Full bench of 9 justices hear arguments to bar Hadash-Ta’al member Ofer Kasif from running in April ballot due to comments equating Israel with Nazis

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

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

The Supreme Court convened on Wednesday to debate the disqualification of a Jewish far-left candidate for the Arab Israeli Hadash-Ta’al party from participating in the upcoming general elections, after the Central Elections Committee ruled to keep him off the ballot.

The committee, which is staffed by Knesset lawmakers and chaired by a Supreme Court justice, voted last week to prevent Ofer Kasif from running in April‘s election despite the opinion of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit that his past provocative statements were not grounds for disqualification.

Israel’s election laws forbid anyone who openly supports armed conflict against Israel or incites racism from running for Knesset. According to “Basic Law: The Knesset,” however, a ruling by the committee to bar a candidate must be approved by the Supreme Court.

The petition against Kasif, which was brought by the Yisrael Betenu party, related to statements in which he called Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked “neo-Nazi scum,” compared Israel and the Israel Defense Forces to the Nazi regime, voiced support for canceling the Law of Return and changing the national anthem, and said that Israel was carrying out a “creeping genocide” of the Palestinians.

Appearing in front of a full bench of nine Supreme Court justices, Yisrael Beytenu lawyer Yoav Meni said that such “poisonous opinions have no place in the Knesset,” and implored the judges to uphold the committee’s ruling.

Asked by Chief Justice Esther Hayut how Kasif’s comments constituted support for armed conflict or incitement to violence even if, in her words, the statements were “very serious indeed,” Meni replied: “He said that the justice minister was a Nazi and compared the State of Israel to the Nazis. We all know what should be done to Nazis.”

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

In response, Attorney Hasan Jabaroun, the director of Adalah, The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, said that Nazi and fascist comparisons were metaphors stemming from Kasif’s area of expertise as a political scientist.

“There is no justification for disqualifying me,” Kasif told reporters immediately after the hearing. “That’s what the attorney general said from the beginning, and that’s what we heard from several judges and my attorneys. The arguments against me were refuted in the hearing.”

Kasif said that the Central Elections Committee decision was based on “purely political reasons.”

Standing alongside Kasif, MK Ayman Odeh, who leads the Hadash-Ta’al party, said the disqualification was an attempt to “silence those who oppose a discriminatory and racist regime.”

Yisrael Beytenu chair Avigdor Liberman, who was also present for the debate, said in a statement that “it cannot be that the attorney general wants to disqualify someone on the right and stick with someone on the left, such as Ofer Kasif, who speaks with severe incitement.We demand the same standards that are applied to the right, and therefore the court must disqualify Ofer Kasif from running for Knesset elections.”

In a legal opinion written before last week’s Central Election Committee hearing on petitions to disqualify various candidates, the attorney general, though rejecting the claims against Kasif, said that far-right Otzma Yehudit leader Michael Ben Ari should be barred from running due to racist statements against Arabs.

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)

The committee, nonetheless, rejected the petition against Ben Ari. Several groups have, however, since filed petitions with the High Court of Justice to overturn the decision and ban him from taking a place on the Union of Right-Wing Parties slate, which is made up of Jewish Home, the National Union, and Otzma Yehudit.

On Thursday, the court will hear arguments over the disqualification of Ra’am-Balad, the other of the Israel’s two main Arab Israeli parties, which the Central Elections Committee also ruled to bar from running.

The petition against Balad-Ra’am was filed by the Likud, Yisrael Beytenu and Otzma Yehudit parties, which claimed that the Arab Israeli party is “seeking to eliminate Israel as a Jewish state, and supports the violent Palestinian resistance and Hezbollah, and most of its members are supporters and backers of terror.”

In 2015, the same committee voted to disqualify MK Hanin Zoabi of the Balad party before the decision was overturned by the Supreme Court on appeal.

The Supreme Court has only ever upheld three decisions to disqualify parties from elections: The Socialist Party was banned in 1964 and the far-right Kach and Kahana Chai parties were banned in 1988 and 1992. The court has never upheld the disqualification of an individual candidate.

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