JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel’s election board has approved far-right Jewish candidates accused by rivals of racism for next month’s election while disqualifying an Arab party that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said supported terrorism.
The Central Elections Committee’s decisions, taken late on Wednesday, were unlikely to be implemented before court appeals, but stoked an already acrimonious race for the April 9 vote.
Facing a corruption case and a merger of centrist parties that could defeat him, the conservative Netanyahu has allied with an ultra-nationalist list that includes the Jewish Power party to boost his chances.
The elections committee, made up of members of the outgoing parliament, struck down motions that had sought to bar as racist Jewish Power’s Michael Ben-Ari and Itamar Ben-Gvir, who are adherents of late anti-Arab rabbi Meir Kahane.
Left-wing party Meretz said it would appeal, along with center-left Labour, to the Supreme Court against the decision to let the Jewish Power candidates stand.
The committee also voted 17-10 to bar the joint Arab party Raam-Balad from the election in accordance with a motion filed by Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party. Likud says the Balad faction wants to eliminate Israel as a Jewish state and backs Palestinian and Lebanese militants.
“Those who support terrorism will not be in the Israeli Knesset!” Netanyahu wrote on Twitter.
Raam-Balad, a mix of Islamist and Arab nationalists, describes itself as a democratic movement opposed to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory.
“We have a fierce argument with Zionism,” Mansour Abbas, who heads the Raam faction, told Reuters.
Raam-Balad now holds eight of parliament’s 120 seats. Candidates of other parties representing Israel’s 20 percent Arab minority remain eligible to run.
Abbas rejected the terrorism charge and said Raam-Balad would also appeal.
“We undergo this travesty during every election campaign. In the end, the Supreme Court voids the Elections Committee’s political, populist decisions,” he said in separate remarks to Israel’s Army Radio on Thursday.
The Supreme Court did reinstate Balad after it was disqualified in 2009, when it ran separately in a parliamentary election.
Israel has in the past prosecuted two Balad figures for contacts with Palestinian militants and accused a former party leader of helping Hezbollah guerrillas during the 2006 Lebanon war, prompting him to emigrate to Qatar.
Netanyahu is battling for political survival after Israel’s attorney-general said last week he plans to indict him in three corruption cases. He denies wrongdoing.
His alliance has brought rare censure from the U.S. pro-Israel lobby and normally staunch Netanyahu backer AIPAC, which called Jewish Power a “racist and reprehensible party.”
Jewish Power leaders call themselves successors to Kahane, a U.S.-born rabbi who served one term in parliament in the 1980s before his Kach party was banned by Israel as racist.
Washington branded the party a terrorist organization.
Kahane, who was assassinated in New York in 1990 by an Egyptian-born American gunman, advocated the “transfer” of Palestinians to neighboring Arab countries and a ban on intermarriage between Israeli Jews and Arabs.
Jewish Power currently has no parliament members, having not won enough votes in the previous elections.
No single party has ever won a majority in the Knesset, and post-election coalition talks determine the shape of the government and its leader.
Opinion polls predict a second-place finish for Likud, with 30 parliamentary seats compared with 35 for a new party, the centrist Blue and White led by former armed forces chief Benny Gantz. But the surveys said it was still unclear which party would be able to put together a governing coalition.
(Corrects Arab party’s name throughout to Raam-Balad, not Balad, and corrects number of its legislators in paragraph 10.)
Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Andrew Cawthorne