Israel: Top court bans Jewish Power's Michael Ben-Ari from polls

Supreme Court bans far-right candidate Michael Ben-Ari from April elections, citing his display of anti-Arab racism.

    Michael Ben-Ari (centre) came under fire for comments he made about Israeli Arabs [Ronen Zvulun/Reuters]
    Michael Ben-Ari (centre) came under fire for comments he made about Israeli Arabs [Ronen Zvulun/Reuters]

    Israel's Supreme Court has banned the leader of a far-right ultranationalist party from running in next month's elections.

    Reversing the decisions of Israel's elections committee earlier this month, the court ruled on Sunday to bar Michael Ben-Ari, the leader of the Jewish Power party, in an 8-1 vote.

    Ben-Ari has come under fire for comments he made about Palestinian citizens of Israel, which Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit previously said amount to "incitement to racism" and "calling for a violent renunciation of the Arab population's rights".

    These include a May 2018 speech in which Ben-Ari called Israeli Arabs "enemies from within", according to the Haaretz website. 

    The court ruled in favour of appellants who argued Ben-Ari had displayed anti-Arab racism, Reuters news agency reported, citing a statement by the court. 

    Ben-Ari condemned the ruling, according to local media. "There is a legal junta that seeks to take over our lives. It's not a democracy," he was quoted as saying by the Haaretz. 

    Other members of Jewish Power remain eligible to run.

    The court upheld the candidacy of Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right lawyer and fellow leader of Jewish Power.

    According to Jewish Power, Ben-Ari's disqualification marks the first time a candidate approved by the committee has been banned from standing in elections. 

    Jewish Power's leaders are successors of the late rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocated expelling Arabs from Israel and creating a Jewish theocracy.

    In a widely criticised bid to unite Israel's nationalist bloc, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brokered a deal to see Jewish Power join with two far-right parties to create a single electoral list.

    The Supreme Court rulings were widely expected and unlikely to shake Netanyahu's efforts to craft a rightist alliance that might secure him a record fifth term.

    The top court also backed a candidate from the far-left Hadash party, Ofer Kassif, and approved the two main Arab alliances, Hadash-Taal and Raam-Balad.

    The elections committee had initially barred the latter over its alleged support for violent resistance.

    Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said in a statement that the court's blocking of Ben-Ari "while declaring terror-backing parties kosher is a crass and misguided interference in the heart of Israeli democracy".

    Netanyahu's bid for re-election has been challenged by a centrist newcomer, former armed forces chief Benny Gantz. Their escalating exchanges of allegations have included corruption, bigotry, forsaking national security and abetting Israel's foes.

    A poll aired by public broadcaster Kan on Sunday put Likud narrowly in the lead to form the next coalition government with a projected 31 of parliament's 120 seats against 30 for Gantz's Blue and White party.

    If re-elected, Netanyahu will become Israel's longest-serving premier in July.

    That bid was dealt an unprecedented blow last month when Mandelblit, the attorney general, announced a plan to indict Netanyahu for bribery and breach of trust. Netanyahu denies wrongdoing and could forestall formal charges in a review hearing after the election.

    Raam-Balad, which held eight seats in the last parliament, said the Supreme Court had upheld its "fundamental right to represent our electorate while Netanyahu and Gantz compete to see who can incite more powerfully against the Arab public".

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies