Israel's Top Court Bans Kahanist Leader From Election Run, Okays Arab Slates, Far-left Candidate

Court reversed the Knesset election committee's decision, which had approved Michael Ben Ari and disqualified Balad-United Arab List and Hadash's Ofer Cassif ■ For first time in Israeli history candidate, not list, is banned

Ofer Cassif and Michael Ben Ari.
Olivier Fitoussi, Ilya Melnikov

Israel's Supreme Court banned on Sunday Kahanist leader Michael Ben Ari from running in the April 9 general election and reversed the disqualification of Arab joint slate Balad-United Arab List and Ofer Cassif, a member of political alliance Hadash-Ta'al.

Earlier this month, the Central Election Committee disqualified the Balad-United Arab List and Cassif, opposing the opinion of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit. That same day, a petition against Ben Ari, the chairman of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, failed to pass the committee, which approved him to run in the election.

The decision to allow Ofer Cassif to run was made by an eight to one majority. The decision to allow the running of Arab joint slate Balad-United Arab List was also made by an eight to one majority. The nine justices unanimously approved Hadash-Ta'al to run in the election.

The decision sets a precedent as it is the first time a a single candidate - not an entire list - is barred from running, since the law allowing to ban a candidate was passed in 2002.

The decision is backed by the opinion of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who stated that he was in favor of disqualifying Ben Ari from running for Knesset on grounds of incessant incitement against Arabs and a significant mass of evidence to prove it. His disqualification was made by an eight to one majority. The judges who voted for the disqualification are President of the High Court Esther Hayut, Neal Hendel, Uzi Vogelman, Isaac Amit, Menahem Mazuz, Anat Baron, George Karra, and David Mintz. Only Noam Sohlberg opposed the disqualification.

Far-right politicians Itamar Ben-Gvir and Michael Ben Ari at a Supreme Court hearing, on March 14, 2019.
AFP

The only other times slates were barred from running for Knesset are in 1965 when the Arab  far-left socialist list was barred from running for grounds that its members undermined the state of Israel, and in 1988 when Meir Kahane’s radical right-wing party Kach sought to be elected for a second term.

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In response to Ben Ari’s disqualification, Benny Gantz, who is running against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as part of the Kahol Lavan slate, said: “It’s good that there are judges in Jerusalem.”

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said in response to the decisions: “The judges of the High Court have turnd themselves into a political factor. Their decision to disqualify Ben Ari and authorize parties that support terror is a blatant and erroneous intervention in Israeli democracy. Tomorrow I will publish my plan for the completion of a judicial revolution in my next term.”

Michael Ben Ari said in response that "there is a legal junta that seeks to take over our lives. It's not a democracy."

Ofer Cassif at the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 6, 2019.
Emil Salman

Ofer Cassif said he was “happy justice has been served,” adding that this was a “shameful political attempt by the Kahanists sponsored by Netanyahu.” Cassif said that “despite the efforts to narrow the democratic space and silence voices opposing that discriminatory regime I will continue to talk about ending the occupation and strive for peave and equality.”

Balad-United Arab List said after the court’s decision that it is only the public that will decide whether they are “worthy of our trust.”

The Union of Right-Wing Parties, of which the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit is part, said the ruling was a “disgrace” and promising to “stop the irresponsible legal activism of the Supreme Court.” They added: “This is the theater of absurd,” saying that Cassif and Tibi, the head of Ta’al, support terror.

Chairman of the Hadash party Ayman Odeh said in response: “The attempt to silence Arab slates is a racist and abhorrent effort by those who are afraid of Arab-Jewish cooperation. They are so afraid of losing power that they are willing to pull out the red carpet for those who call for transfer of Arabs and for supporters of race theory and violence.

A ban against a party slate may be appealed in the Supreme Court, which holds a special “election appeals” process, while a ban on an individual candidate automatically requires approval by the Supreme Court before taking effect. 

Election committee decision

Prior to the Knesset deliberations last week, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit submitted his opinion to the comittee, stating he was in favor of disqualifying Ben Ari from running for Knesset on the grounds of incitement to racism.

Meretz, Stav Shaffir (Labor) and the Reform Movement filed the petition to the Central Elections Committee to ban Ben Ari from running for Knesset and filed a petition with the High Court of Justice against the committee’s decision. The High Court discussed petitions against Ben Ari's qualification to run on Thursday. 

In November 2017, at an annual memorial for Rabbi Meir Kahane, Ben Ari gave a speech in which he said of Israeli Arabs, “Let’s give them another 100,000 dunams [of land] and affirmative action, maybe they’ll love us. In the end, yes, they’ll love us when we’re slaughtered.”

In May 2018, Ben Ari gave another speech in which he said, “The Arabs of Haifa aren’t different in any way from the Arabs of Gaza. How are they different? In that they’re here, enemies from within. They’re waging war against us here, within the state. And this is called – it has a name – it’s called a fifth column. We need to call the dog by its name. They’re our enemies. They want to destroy us. Of course there are loyal Arabs, but you can count them – one percent or less than one percent.”

Mendelblit told the High Court of Justice during the discussion last week on Tuesday that there was no cause to disqualify Cassif from running, writing that the “critical mass of evidence” required for a candidate’s disqualification was not present.

Michael Ben Ari and Itamar Ben-Gvir from the Kahanist, far-right Otzma Yehudit party had petitioned against both lists. 

MK David Bitan had petitioned on behalf of Likud against Balad-United Arab List, and Yisrael Beitenu chairman Avigdor Lieberman petitioned against Cassif. Petitioners claimed both lists and Cassif supported terror and ruled out Israel's right to exist as a Jewish and Democratic state. Mendelblit said he opposed all the petitions.

Cassif was accused of equating Israel and the Israel Defense Forces with the Nazi regime, and it was noted that he called to fight "Judeo-Nazism," expressed support for changing the anthem, and called Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked "Neo-Nazi scum." He did not attend the session, but was called after committee chairman Justice Hanan Melcer insisted on his presence.

"I come from an academic background, and my area of expertise is among other things the subject of Fascism, Nazis and nationalism in general," said Cassif, explaining his comments. "When I speak to a friend or write a post as a private person, I use metaphors. When I used the aforementioned terms – they were metaphors."

In an interview last month, Cassif said Israel conducts a "creeping genocide" against the Palestinian people.