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Israel’s top court disqualifies far-rightist, approves Arab party for ballot

Jewish Power party's Itamar Ben Gvir (L) argues with the Israeli Arab candidate Ata Abu Medeghem of Raam-Balad after a hearing at the Israeli Supreme Court in Jerusalem, on March 14, 2019. [GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP/Getty Image]
Jewish Power party's Itamar Ben Gvir (L) argues with the Israeli Arab candidate Ata Abu Medeghem of Raam-Balad after a hearing at the Israeli Supreme Court in Jerusalem, on March 14, 2019. [GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP/Getty Image]

Israel’s Supreme Court yesterday banned a far-right Jewish leader from running in the election and allowed the Arab-Israeli alliance Ra’am-Balad to run.

The ruling also saw Hadash’s only Jewish candidate, Ofer Cassif, permitted to stand for a seat in the 9 April poll. The decision to allow Cassif to run was made by an eight to one majority. The decision to allow the running of Arab joint slate Ra’am-Balad was also made by an eight to one majority.

The ruling puts an end to two weeks of fierce debate in Israel that has seen a series of competing petitions made to Israel’s Central Election Committee, the body which oversees the country’s electoral process and is made up of Knesset members (MKs) from each political party.

The petitions sought to ban Ra’am-Balad and Cassif from participating in the upcoming election on the grounds that they “reject Israel as a Jewish and democratic state”. These petitions came in response to a series of appeals filed against the ultra-right-wing Otzma Yehudit party, calling for the party to be banned for racism and incitement.

Ignoring the recommendations of Israel’s Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit – who recommended that Otzma Yehudit be banned but Ra’am-Balad and Cassif be allowed to stand – the election committee voted to allow Otzma to run but ban the Arab-Israeli parties and their only Jewish candidate.

However yesterday’s ruling became the first in Israeli history to see a single candidate barred from an election after releasing its decision on Otzma Yehudit’s Michael Ben Ari. Incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had hoped to include Ben Ari’s party in his coalition if he’s asked to form a government after the election.

Modest Netanyahu – “I am ready to leave my position tomorrow as prime minister, but I have no one to leave the keys with” – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Tensions were rife in the courtroom last week, as a full bench of nine Supreme Court judges heard speeches from legal representatives of each party or candidate, as well as speeches by those who had submitted the initial petitions.

According to Israel’s Basic Law: The Knesset, “[party] lists shall not participate in elections to the Knesset, and a person shall not be a candidate for election to the Knesset, if the objects or actions of the list or the actions of the person, expressly or by implication, include one of the following: Negation of the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state; incitement to racism; support of armed struggle, by a hostile state or a terrorist organization, against the State of Israel.”

However, the same law also points out that “the decision of the Central Elections Committee that a candidate is prevented from participating in the elections requires the affirmation of the Supreme Court of Israel”. The Supreme Court’s verdict today has therefore rejected the committee’s decision and followed through with the attorney general’s recommendations.

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Ofer Cassif

On Wednesday, the court debated whether to ban Ofer Cassif, the only Jewish candidate in the predominantly Arab-Israeli Hadash party, from participation in the upcoming election.

Earlier this month a petition was submitted to Israel’s Central Election Committee by Yisrael Beiteinu head and former defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, to have Cassif banned on the grounds that he allegedly rejects Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state”.

Addressing the court, Yisrael Beiteinu lawyer Yoav Meni said that Cassif’s “poisonous opinions have no place in the Knesset,” pointing to previous comments made by the Hebrew University professor in which he called Justice Minister and co-leader of the New Right (Hayemin Hehadash) party, Ayelet Shaked, a “neo-Nazi”.

Hadash elHadash election hopeful Ofer Cassif with Arab-Israeli Member of the Knesset attend the Supreme Court season on 14 March 2019 to contest a ban on Cassif and Arab-Israel parties Ra'am-Balad running in April's election [Twitter]ection hopeful Ofer Cassif with Arab-Israeli Member of the Knesset attend the Supreme Court season on 14 March 2019 to contest a ban on Cassif and Arab-Israel parties Ra'am-Balad running in April's election

Hadash election hopeful Ofer Cassif with Arab-Israeli Member of the Knesset attend the Supreme Court season on 14 March 2019 to contest a ban on Cassif and Arab-Israel parties Ra’am-Balad running in April’s election [Twitter]

Chief Justice Esther Hayut responded to Meni by asking how Cassif’s comments constituted support for armed conflict or incitement to violence. Meni replied by saying: “We all know what should be done to Nazis.” The legal team representing Cassif, Attorney Hasan Jabareen from the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel (better known as Adalah), hit back at Meni’s approach, saying that Cassif’s “Nazi and fascist comparisons were metaphors stemming from [his] area of expertise as a political scientist”.

The court also focused on Cassif’s criticism of the Law of Return, which states that anyone of Jewish heritage can immigrate to Israel. Justices Menachem Mazuz and Neal Hendel asked Meni whether this made Cassif unfit for the Knesset, to which Meni replied: “Whoever objects to it [the Law of Return] is uprooting the state’s soul.” Mazuz then replied, “then you’re saying Arabs have no place in the Knesset,” Haaretz reported.

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Addressing reporters outside the Supreme Court on Wednesday, Cassif said: “There is no justification for disqualifying me. 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.” The head of the Hadash-Ta’al alliance, Ayman Odeh, stood by his party candidate, saying the whole saga was an attempt to “silence those who oppose a discriminatory and racist regime”.

Speaking to MEMO last week in the wake of the committee’s decision, Cassif said he believed the body had deliberately targeted him because of the potential for Jewish-Arab cooperation that his candidacy represents. While stressing that “of course the main victims of the right-wing’s policy are the Palestinian citizens of Israel,” Cassif explained:

I think that if you look at the committee and you look at what was really going on there with open eyes, I do believe frankly that they want to literally eliminate any kind of affinity, let alone cooperation, between Jews and Arabs […] They look at it as something which is abnormal and they are afraid of it.

He added: “They [the committee’s right-wing members] want to fuel hatred and fear, especially of Jews for Palestinians. For me this is the real issue, because it is of course extremely dangerous.”

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Ra’am-Balad

On Thursday the Supreme Court debated the fate of Ra’am-Balad, the other Arab-Israeli political alliance formed in the wake of the Joint List split in January. Ra’am and Balad hold more nationalist views than Hadash, meaning the two parties’ shared values made them a natural fit for cooperation ahead of the upcoming election.

However, on the same day the Central Election Committee banned Cassif, it voted by a 17-vote-to-ten majority to ban Ra’am-Balad from running on 9 April. This came following two petitions filed by the Likud and Otzma Yehudit parties, which accused Ra’am-Balad of “seeking to eliminate Israel as a Jewish state” and supporting “the violent Palestinian resistance and [Lebanon’s] Hezbollah,” as well as claiming that “most of its members are supporters and backers of terror”.

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Like the verdict against Cassif, the committee’s decision went against the recommendation of Attorney General Mandelblit, who said that “there has not been a critical mass of evidence required to disqualify a list of candidates”.

Ra’am-Balad appealed against the committee’s verdict, taking the decision to the Supreme Court. Few details of these court proceedings have been disclosed, though a video filmed outside the courtroom showed Ra’am-Balad candidates being verbally abused by right-wing candidates.

Otzma Yehudit’s number two, Itamar Ben-Gvir, was filmed shouting at Ra’am-Balad member Ata Abu Madighem: “Terrorist, if you aren’t loyal you should be deported.” Abu Madighem responded to Ben-Gvir, yelling: “You are scum, you are garbage.”

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The “terrorist” label has been used frequently in attacks against Ra’am-Balad. Earlier this month, Balad filed a defamation claim against an Israeli journalist who called the party a “terrorist organisation”. The claim was filed against high-profile journalist Amit Segal – who often works as a reporter on Israel’s Channel 12 – and demanded 280,000 shekel ($77,500), a public apology and retraction of all articles containing the comment.

The lawsuit claimed that Segal’s comments were “malicious, offensive, cynical and irresponsible, with the goal of trying to embarrass the plaintiffs [Balad], spill their blood, incite against them and make them a target for hate using a publication that is false and incites to racism, violence and persecution”.

Balad’s recently-elected Chairman, Mtanes Shehadeh, said of the lawsuit that “Segal, who is known for his far-right views, crossed the line and used his status to hurt the party during elections”. He continued: “We won’t allow damage to the legitimacy of Balad, which represents the national movement within the Arab society and has the most democratic policy platform — a state of all its citizens.”

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Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit)

Also on Thursday, the Supreme Court discussed the fate of Otzma Yehudit, an ultra-right-wing party inspired by the teachings of radical rabbi Meir Kahane, whose ideology inspired the 1994 Ibrahimi Mosque massacre in which 29 Palestinian worshippers were killed.

Head of the left-wing Meretz party Tamar Zandberg – who spearheaded the petitions earlier this month to ban Otzma Yehudit from the upcoming election – was among those to address the court. Zandberg said that the Central Election Committee’s decision to permit the parties’ two candidates – Michael Ben Ari and Itamar Ben-Gvir – from running was “flawed”, noting that the committee is made up of leaders from the Knesset and is thus not an independent body.

Zandberg explained: “The elections committee is a political committee, which decided to ban Arab representatives but to permit the terrorist group ‘Kahane Chai’ to run,” referring to the Kach and Kahane Chai parties which were previously banned from Israeli politics and which are seen as the ideological forerunners of Otzma Yehudit. She continued: “We are here today to remove ‘Kahanism’ from the Knesset. We are here today to prevent the representatives of a terrorist group from getting into the 21st Knesset [after the election].”

Michael Ben Ari, the leader of the Jewish Power party on 23 December 2010 [GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images]

Michael Ben Ari, the leader of the Jewish Power party on 23 December 2010 [GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images]

For its part, Otzma Yehudit hit back at Zandberg and her attempts to have the party banned, with Ben Ari saying: “This is a petition to silence the political enemies of the left by people who don’t hesitate to meet with those who promote murderers […] What [Meretz] is trying to do is silence our cry.”

Ben Ari’s lawyer, Attorney Yitzhak Bam, defended a statement from 2017 in which Ben Ari said Palestinian citizens of Israel “are our enemies who want to destroy us. There are of course loyal Arabs, but they [constitute] less than one per cent”. Bam explained that: “Ben Ari has no problem with a person who is loyal to the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people, [but] with a person who does not identify with [that], there is certainly a problem.”

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Other right-wing MKs also waded into the debate, with Bezalel Smotrich – the head of the National Union party and number two on the Union of Right Wing Parties’ slate, with which Otzma Yehudit is also allied – shouting at Chief Justice Hayut. “I respect the court, and I ask you to respect the Knesset and its representatives,” Smotrich yelled, before Hayut silenced the unruly MK and instructed him not to speak without being called on.

Otzma Yehudit and their allies also used the Supreme Court hearing as an opportunity to further their narrative that Israel’s judiciary is rigged against them. Smotrich claimed that his party “represents the sovereign people” and that the court acts “with disdain” for the Knesset, echoing sentiments expressed by incumbent Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the judiciary is part of a “left-wing conspiracy” to indict him for corruption and prevent his re-election on 9 April.

Speaking ahead of the hearing on Thursday, Ben-Gvir said: “We hope that the court will do what is right and reject outright the request to disqualify me and Ben Ari. Any reasonable person understands that this is a ridiculous petition […] which constitutes an attempt [by the left] to influence the opinion of the judges in an improper manner.” Ben-Gvir concluded: “The terrorists of Hadash-Ta’al should be disqualified, and the faithful of the Jewish state should be allowed to run immediately.”

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In response to yesterday’s ruling, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said: “The judges of the High Court have turned themselves into a political factor. Their decision to disqualify Ben Ari and authorise 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.”

Shaked has criticised the Supreme Court on numerous occasions vowing to overhaul it following the election.

“It’s something that goes to the root of our professional integrity,” said an attorney working in the Supreme Court appeals department. “Maybe we are becoming the Jewish Home [Shaked’s then political party’s] appeals department rather than the Israeli state appeals department,” he added.

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