The Central Elections Committee allowed Otzma Yehudit’s candidates to run in the upcoming elections.
The proposed ban was voted down on Wednesday by a one-vote margin, with the Likud, Bayit Yehudi, New Right, UTJ, Yisrael Beytenu and Shas opposing, the Labor Party, Joint List, Yesh Atid, Meretz, Hatnua and Ta’al in favor, and Kulanu abstaining.
The petitions against former MK Michael Ben-Ari and Itamar Ben-Gvir, Otzma’s representatives in the Union of Right-Wing Parties, all called to disqualify them on grounds of racist incitement against Arabs.
The night before the debate, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit released his opinion that Ben-Ari should be disqualified but not Ben-Gvir.
Mandelblit based his decision on several video clips found on the Otzma Facebook page, including the following from May 2018: “The Arabs in Haifa are in no way different from the Arabs in Gaza.... They are enemies from the inside.... They are fighting a war against us in the state; this thing has a name, it’s called a ‘fifth column’.... They want to destroy us. Of course, there are loyal Arabs, but they amount to 1% or less.... There is no coexistence with them.”
In August 2018, Ben-Ari said that “anyone who dares to speak out against a Jew won’t live. He won’t live! Don’t expel him, don’t take away his citizenship. He won’t live! A firing squad should kill him, eliminate him, like Arabs understand. That is their language.”
Mandelblit brought up several other similar examples, which were presented in the petitions against Otzma, but said there was not enough evidence to ban Ben-Gvir from running.
At the meeting’s opening, Central Elections Committee chairman Justice Hanan Melcer explained that the right to vote and be elected is broad, and should come first if there is any doubt as to whether a candidate or list should be disqualified.
“A ban is a last resort,” Melcer explained, calling on the committee’s members to use the same standard against both sides of the political spectrum.
Melcer also spoke out against “the votes becoming a political statement, because they say it’ll go to the Supreme Court anyway, so we’ll vote according to this allegiance or that, the Supreme Court will reverse the decision, and we will criticize it.
“I want this committee to surprise me and do better,” he added.
Much of the petitions against Otzma revolved around the relationship between Ben-Ari and Ben-Gvir to Rabbi Meir Kahane, Otzma’s ideological forebear who was banned from the Knesset for racist incitement. Several of the petitioners quoted Ben-Gvir as saying his ideas are the same as Kahane’s, but his style is different.
Meretz chairwoman Tamar Zandberg presented her arguments against Otzma, saying that its candidates have “an accumulation of statements inciting not only to racism but to violence and genocide.
“We need to draw a clear line of what is outside the borders of a legitimate debate,” she stated.
Meretz MK Esawi Frej read bills proposed by Kahane, including banning non-Jews from holding any position of power in Israel, or from living in Jerusalem, and outlawing sexual relations between Jews and gentiles.
“If this isn’t racism, what is?” Frej asked.
Ben-Gvir, who is an attorney, gave a rebuttal, arguing that the quotes are taken out of context and Kahane’s quotes are irrelevant.
“Respond to the views of Ben-Gvir and Ben-Ari, not to Rabbi Kahane,” Ben-Gvir said, adding that he never even met Kahane.
In the words of the famous bumper sticker, Ben-Gvir said “Kahane was right,” but that in some cases he was wrong.
Melcer asked about the specific laws that Frej mentioned, and Ben-Gvir said he would not propose any of them – though he personally opposes intermarriage – and pointed out that in the four years in which Ben-Ari was a lawmaker and Ben-Gvir was his aide, they did not submit any such legislation.
“I’ve never killed an Arab or was violent against an Arab,” Ben-Gvir said. “The most serious indictment against me was about a sticker I stuck somewhere or something I shouted.”
Ben-Gvir lamented that “there is a possibility that [candidates] who want to erase the Jewish state will be here, but people who are faithful to the Land of Israel will be banned from the Knesset.”
Both Ben-Gvir and Ben-Ari also argued that there are Arab MKs who identify with and praise Palestinian terrorists, and that banning them (Ben-Gvir and Ben-Ari) is hypocritical.
Ben-Ari said he is not a racist, and talked about his close friend, Kahane’s son Binyamin, being murdered by Palestinian terrorists along with his wife, Talia.
“I go from funeral to funeral, shiva call to shiva call,” he said, referring to victims of terrorism. “We’re the dangerous ones? We’re the racists, the ones who have to be outlawed? We have to be censored? You want to turn off the warning sirens!”
When it comes to terrorism, “everyone responsible has to be brought to justice, but we are mostly talking about emigration,” Ben-Ari argued.
As for the quote where he talked about Arabs in Gaza or Haifa, Ben-Ari said he was speaking against the family reunification policy – which was stopped in recent years – by which an Israeli Arab who married a Palestinian could bring the Palestinian spouse to live in Israel, and not about all Arabs.
Debates and votes on petitions against Hadash candidate Ofer Kassif for rejecting Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and against the UAL-Balad list for the same reason, as well as for supporting terrorism against Israel, did not end by press time.
Even if the Central Elections Committee were to ban candidates or lists, they could appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court. The court has overturned most bans in recent decades. However, as Melcer pointed out, the relevant law has been changed since the last election to include speech and not just actions as grounds for disqualification.