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Israel's elections committee bans leftist Arab-Israeli coalition from running

Balad-United Arab List and candidate Ofer Cassif disqualified while far-right politicians cleared to run
Palestinian citizens of Israel march during demonstration against demolition of houses by Israeli authorities (AFP)

Israel’s election committee banned a leftist Arab-Israeli coalition from running in parliamentary elections next month even as it approved two members of a far-right party who have been labelled as racist.

The Central Election Committee on Wednesday prohibited both the Balad-United Arab List and Ofer Cassif, a member of another Arab-Israeli party, Hadash-Ta'al, from candidacy in decisions that rights groups said were politically motivated.

'The decision was made because we represent a challenge and a real democratic plan for Israeli politics'

- Mtanos Chehade, Head of Balad Party

Even though Cassif was barred from running, the committee approved Hadash-Ta'al to run as a party, despite a petition brought forth by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party.

Earlier on Wednesday, the committee cleared Michael Ben-Ari and Itamar Ben-Gvir of the Jewish Power party to run. Members of the party are followers of the late rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Kach movement was labelled as a terrorist organisation by Israel, the US and the EU.

Netanyahu hailed the decision, tweeting that "those who support terrorism will not be in the Knesset".

But Mtanos Chehade, head of the Balad Party and university lecturer, said the decision was made by a committee "controlled by a fascist, right-wing mentality".

"The decision was made because we represent a challenge and a real democratic plan for Israeli politics," Chehade said in a statement released late on Wednesday.

"What’s really strange is that the same election committee allowed the grandchildren of Kahane and their fascist party to run in the election while they are banning democratic parties."

Hassan Jabareen, general director of Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, said in a statement that the committee was operating in overt contradiction of the law in order to humiliate Arab candidates. Adalah plans to appeal the decisions.

"It is clear that the committee’s decisions are strictly the result of political considerations reflecting the McCarthyist persecution of those whose views are not acceptable to Israel’s political right," Jabareen said on Wednesday.

The decisions will be referred to the Supreme Court on Sunday for approval.

The petition against the Balad-United Arab List was filed by the Likud, Yisrael Beytenu and Otzma Yehudit parties who claimed that the party is "seeking to eliminate Israel as a Jewish state, and supports the violent Palestinian resistance and Hezbollah", the Times of Israel reported.

A petition filed by Likud accused Cassif of comparing the Israeli army to Nazi Germany and alleged that he called Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked "Neo-Nazi scum".

Cassif reportedly told the committee that his language stems from his "academic background".

"I come from an academic background, and my area of expertise is among other things the subject of fascism, Nazis and nationalism in general," he was quoted as saying by Haaretz.

Far-right candidates approved to run

The committee's decisions came despite an opinion delivered the day before by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit who recommended that Balad and Cassif should be allowed to run while Ben-Ari should be banned.

Mandelblit said late on Tuesday that recent remarks by Ben-Ari amounted to "incitement to racism" against Palestinian citizens of Israel, who constitute almost 18 percent of the population.

Far-right party candidates to be allowed to run in Israeli elections
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Ben-Ari has described Palestinian citizens of Israel as "treacherous and murderous", Mandelblit said in a statement.

"Ben-Ari is inciting on an ethnic-nationalistic basis against the Arab population" and "calling for a violent renunciation of the Arab population's rights," Mandelblit said.

In May 2018, Ben-Ari called Arabs “enemies” that “want to destroy us”.

 “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,” he said.

“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,”

The committee's decision will benefit Netanyahu who has been trying to secure as many right-wing seats as possible in the next parliament. Last month, he brokered a controversial deal which saw Jewish Power join with two far-right parties to create a single electoral list.

Ben-Ari, who was a member of parliament from 2009 to 2013, was given fifth place on the list. Ben-Gvir was given the eighth slot.

Netanyahu has faced harsh criticism over the deal, with many accusing him of easing the path for "racists" to make it into parliament.

Jewish Power had lashed out at Mandelblit's recommendation against Ben-Ari, accusing him of "hypocrisy" for not recommending to disqualify the Arab lists and claiming he was attempting to "run Israel".

It said the attorney general had been misled "with partial recordings and distortions of interviews".