Law Championed by the Right Used to Ban Kahanist Leader From Election

The amendment to the Basic Law that disqualified Otzma Yehudit's Michael Ben Ari was originally drafted by the right to be used against Arab parties and their candidates

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Otzma Yehudit's Michael Ben Ari after receiving news of his disqualification from running for Knesset, March 17, 2019.
Otzma Yehudit's Michael Ben Ari after receiving news of his disqualification from running for Knesset, March 17, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman

Israel's Supreme Court this week banned Michael Ben Ari, leader of the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party, from running in the April 9 general election. The court cited his racist comments – using the very legislative amendment that the right-wing introduced during the previous Knesset with the aim of disqualifying Arab parties.

In March 2017, the Knesset plenum granted final approval to an amendment to the Basic Law on the Knesset which had been sponsored by Yisrael Beiteinu as a tool to wield against Arab parties, including Balad and its member Hanin Zoabi. It enabled Knesset candidates who supported armed conflict by a terror organization or state, incitement to racism, or who say that Israel isn't Jewish or democratic could be barred from running for parliament. At the time, the legal counsel to the Knesset's Constitution Committee remarked that it doesn't represent a fundamental change; the Supreme Court had already ruled that statements are tantamount to deeds, even if the law does not explicitly say so.

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Constitution Committee chairman Nissan Slomiansky, of Habayit Hayehudi, argued that the amendment was necessary because the new version would impress upon candidates to the next Knesset and inhibit such statements. The Knesset member who initiated the amendment, Yisrael Beiteinu's Oded Forer, said at the time "we had seen Knesset members expressing anti-Israel views and harming the security of residents," which is why their right to be Knesset members should be denied the next time around.

Following Ben Ari's disqualification on Sunday, Forer criticized the judges, saying that the "Supreme Court had killed the Basic Law on the Knesset, determining that the laws of the land have no meaning, only the radical world-view of the extreme left do."

Now politicians on the right are trying to block the results of the article they themselves initiated. Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the National Union party, hastily presented a bill to cancel the relevant amendment in a symbolic attempt to restore Ben Ari's legitimacy as a candidate. "Time after time this article is used to disqualify only Jewish candidates, people on the right, with the excuse of incitement to racism or harming the democratic character of the state," Smotrich wrote in the proposal.

This wasn't the first time that a right-wing legislative amendment turned out to be a double-edged sword. During the 19th Knesset, Avigdor Lieberman acted to raise the threshold for election to the Knesset, from 2% of the popular vote to 3.23% (equivalent to about four Knesset seats). The objective was to eliminate parties that couldn't achieve four seats, which would have presented a major obstacle to Arab parties. In practice, the Arab parties reacted by merging, and now that high threshold is a threat to none other than certain right-wing parties, first and foremost Yisrael Beiteinu itself, according to the latest polls.

The previous Knesset also passed a law allowing members to be ousted for racist statements, or supporting armed struggle against Israel, with a majority of 90. This has yet to be wielded against anybody on the left or right.