Just hours after chairman of the far right Otzma Yehudit, or “Jewish Power” party, Michael Ben-Ari was approved by Israel’s Central Election Committee to run for the Knesset on Wednesday, the same committee disqualified the joint Arab slate Balad-United Arab List from running.
The decisions were made despite recommendations from Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit who said Ben-Ari should be disqualified, while the Balad-UAL list should be allowed to run. It is expected to be appealed to the Supreme Court.
In addition to the disqualification of Balad-UAL, the committee ruled to prevent the candidacy of Ofer Cassif, a Jewish representative in Hadash-Ta’al, a second Arab list that is still on the ballot. The claim against Cassif was that he “denied the existence of Israel as a Jewish state”, and in the case of UAL-Balad it also included “supporting terror” (Haaretz, Hebrew).
Ben-Ari, who once said that those who speak against Jews should be killed, petitioned against both Hadash-Ta’al and Balad-UAL. MK David Bitan also petitioned on behalf of Likud against Balad-UAL, while Yisrael Beitenu chairman Avigdor Lieberman petitioned against Cassif. The petitioners claimed both lists and Cassif supported terror and ruled out Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and Democratic state. Mandelblit said he opposed all the petitions.
It is important to note these allegations should not be taken seriously. If they were serious, Mandelblit would support them. Instead they should be seen as a punishment for calling for a “just, democratic equal” state, as Cassif explicitly does.
Prior to the committees decisions, Mandelblit had voiced his opposition to the petitions against Cassif, instead saying that Ben-Ari should be banned from running on the grounds of incitement and racism.
The accusations against Cassif and Balad-UAL of “support for terror” seemed to be ‘substantiated’ by Avigdor Lieberman, who said:
Whoever says that the Chief of Staff is a war criminal and that Israel is committing ethnic cleansing in the Gaza strip, must not sit in the Israeli Knesset. His place is together with the rest of the Knesset terror supporters, in the parliament of Hamas in the Gaza strip or in the Iranian Majles in Tehran.
Lieberman expressed a clear expectation that the Supreme Court would not interfere in the decision.
Prime Minister Netanyahu added:
Whoever supports terror will not be in the Israeli Knesset.
The usage of the word “terror” doesn’t have to be factual, it can be completely selective.
Netanyahu knows how to whitewash terror, when it’s Jewish. In 2006, the 70th anniversary of the King David Hotel bombing which killed 91, he unveiled a plaque hailing the Irgun terrorist bombers, at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center. They are simply regarded as “Irgun fighters”. Netanyahu marked the difference between “us” and “them” (the terrorists): “The difference is expressed in the fact that the terrorists intend to harm civilians whereas legitimate combatants try to avoid that”.
UAL-Balad responded to the news, saying that the decision to disqualify them was “populist and racist, intended to hurt the representation of the Arab citizens”:
It is clear to us that a panel consisting of racist parties who do not wish to see Arabs in the Knesset, will work towards our disqualification. UAL-Balad presents a democratic platform and works towards the promotion of equal rights for all citizens.
The chairman of Hadash-Ta’al, Ayman Odeh responded to the news about Cassif’s disqualification:
Ofer Cassif, who champions equality and presents a clear voice against the occupation and in favor of peace and Jewish-Arab cooperation, is disqualified by the Elections Committee led by the racist Kahanists, together with the extreme right, those who proudly deny the values of democracy, and who promote race theory and transfer. We are speaking about a political silencing of whoever opposes a discriminatory and racist regime. The door of the Israeli Knesset is widely open for Kahanists, but not to a democratic front for peace and equality.
Ben-Ari himself was denied entry to the U.S. in 2012 on the grounds that he was a member of a terrorist organization. His Jewish Power party subscribes to the racist, anti-Arab views of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose original Kach party was outlawed by the US and Israel as a terrorist organization.
Ben-Ari is a devout disciple of Kahane who openly declared that Israel could not be both Jewish and democratic, and repeatedly called for the forcible expulsion of Palestinians.
Kahane’s followers have conducted a series of terror attacks on Palestinians and left-wing Jewish Israelis. His most notorious follower was Baruch Goldstein — the American-Israeli settler who massacred 29 Palestinians at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron in 1994.
Despite opposing Ben-Ari, Mandelblit had ironically stated that Ben-Ari’s colleague Itamar Ben-Gvir should be allowed to run. Ben-Gvir famously has a photo of Goldstein hanging in his living room.
Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg called the decision to allow Ben-Ari to run “embarrassing,” and promised that Meretz would petition to the Supreme Court.
Hadash MK Aida Touma-Sliman also condemned the decision, saying it was “a disgrace that those who call for transfer, deportation and murder get a stamp of approval that legitimizes their opinions – and that Israeli society can be forgiving towards it and hear it.”
“Two racists who seek to execute Kahane’s doctrine – who was denunciated from the parliamentary arena – return under the sponsorship of Netanyahu and the blessing of the rest of the right,” she said.
Palestinian MK Esawi Freige of Meretz called Ben-Gvir a racist during deliberations, saying “this man, who hung a photo of a murderer in his room is supposed to be an MK. This man, who’s coming to deport me, is going to be a member of the Israeli Knesset.”
During his remarks, Ben-Gvir called Rabbi Kahane a “great and wonderful man,” saying “he didn’t speak of death to Arabs but of loyalty to the State of Israel.”
He went on to say that he and Ben-Ari should be allowed to run because the High Court permitted former Palestinian MK Haneen Zoabi, who has been criticized for her outspoken defense of Palestinian rights, to run.
Wednesday’s decisions follow a pattern of strengthening the right-wing, while weakening the Palestinian parties.
The Palestinian parties have been splintering from their previous Joint List coalition, which embodied four parties with somewhat different ideologies. They ended up running in two dual camps: UAL-Balad and Hadash-Ta’al. The Joint List unity ahead of the 2015 elections was widely understood as a joining of forces to ensure survival above the electoral threshold of 3.25% (meaning four Knesset seats out of the 120). The threshold was raised in 2014 from 2%.
Disqualification of Palestinian parties like UAL-Balad are a regular occurrence in Israel, and these disqualifications are regularly appealed to the Supreme Court, which usually counters the Knesset Committee decision.
Under Israeli law, if you advocate for a democratic state that is not specifically “Jewish”, then you violate Israeli law. It’s hard to know, though, how this one will turn out, as the Supreme Court is manned by more ultra-nationalist judges, including settlers, than before.
We shall see what the Supreme Court will have to say about these disqualifications, but in the reality of the Israeli elections, all this seems to serve a largely symbolic purpose.
Even if no Palestinian party was disqualified, it is highly doubtful that they would be wanted in any governing coalition, even by the Gantz-Lapid-led Blue White centrist party. No Israeli government can be formed with a Palestinian Arab party as a coalition partner – that’s how it’s always been.
Recent polls are also indicating a certain fall for the centrist Blue White party, from its original euphoric poll success that took a lot of votes from Likud. It is evening out, with Blue White polling at 35 seats, Likud at 30 (KAN public broadcaster poll). Now, a right-wing coalition government is predicted to produce a majority 61-seat coalition and secure a narrow win against a center-left coalition.