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JERUSALEM —Israel's central elections committee on Wednesday paved the way for a Jewish ultranationalist party to participate in April's parliamentary vote, narrowly rejecting an attempt to disqualify its leaders on the grounds that they incite racism against Arabs.
The committee, made up of representatives from parties in the current Parliament, voted 16-15 against motions to disqualify Jewish Power party leaders Michael Ben Ari and Itamar Ben Gvir.
Jewish Power's leaders are successors of the late rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocated the forced removal of Palestinians and a Jewish theocracy.
Kahane's Kach party was banned from the Israeli Parliament in the 1980s, and the U.S. has classified Kahane's Jewish Defense League a terrorist group. In 2012, the U.S. refused to give Ben Ari an entrance visa, saying he was involved in a terror organization.
The opposition Meretz party and the Reform Movement in Israel submitted an appeal to the elections committee to bar the Jewish Power leaders from running in the April 9 vote, citing racist remarks against Israel's Arab minority.
Speaking to The Associated Press before Wednesday's committee vote, Jewish Power candidate Baruch Marzel dismissed accusations of racism, saying “we don't have anything against Arabs.”
“We have a battle with our enemy, and it's some of the Arabs. There are some Jews,” he said.
Earlier this week, Israel's attorney general called for Ben Ari's disqualification, saying he has incited against Arabs. He cited comments by Ben Ari in social media videos describing Arabs as a “murderous people” who understand “only force.”
The decision to disqualify, however, fell to the central elections committee.
After the committee's decision to let him run, Ben Ari dismissed the attorney general's statement as “false.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struck an election deal last month that would ensure members of Jewish Power a parliamentary seat in an effort to unite Israel's hard-line nationalist and religious bloc ahead of the elections.
Netanyahu's move has been widely criticized in Israel, and has even drawn scorn from pro-Israel American Jewish organizations, such as AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee. Both groups have called the Jewish Power party “reprehensible.”
Ben Gvir, an attorney, has made a career defending radical Israeli settlers implicated in West Bank violence, and Ben Ari has previously served in the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, for an ultranationalist religious party from 2009 to 2013.
Tamar Zandberg, head of the opposition Meretz party, which helped spearhead the petition to disqualify Ben Ari, said Meretz would appeal to the Supreme Court.