Even amid conflict, Israelis have always applauded
themselves for allowing anyone to run for office -
including those who reject the very raison d'être of a
Only rarely has a political party been banned from the
elections, the most notable being Kach, the extreme
rightist anti-Arab party founded by Meir Kahane.
But now, with a round of Knesset elections three weeks
away, Israel has much less reason for pride. While Mr.
Kahane's successor, Baruch Marzel, was allowed to run for
office as the No. 2 candidate for another extreme rightist
party, the two most prominent Arab legislators in the
outgoing Knesset, Ahmed Tibi and Azmi Bishara, were barred
by the Central Election Committee last week.
The committee, composed of representatives of the parties
that have Knesset seats and two neutral members (both of
whom opposed the decision), described Mr. Tibi and Mr.
Bishara as consistently expressing opposition to the
existence of a Jewish state (as contrasted with a state of
"all its citizens" in which everyone is equal, Jew or
Arab). Under Israeli law, such opposition bars a person's
candidacy. Mr. Bishara was also accused of supporting armed
resistance in the occupied territories, an accusation he
Mr. Marzel, whose candidacy was in danger because of his
association with the banned Kach, could run, the committee
members decided, because he had assured them that he no
longer held to the racist policies of Kach - even though he
is often shown on television promoting "transfer," a code
word for the expulsion of the Palestinians from the West
Bank and Gaza.
The final decision on Mr. Tibi's and Mr. Bishara's
candidacies now rests with the Supreme Court, which is
scheduled to hear the candidates' appeals tomorrow. But
even if the court overturns the ban, Israeli Arab voters'
faith in the election system has been broken. The message
could not be clearer: if you are a Jewish extremist, you
can go on the campaign trail. But if you belong to the Arab
minority and do not openly toe the government line, you
cannot be part of the election game.
In the elections held for prime minister just two years
ago, one factor in the defeat of Prime Minister Ehud Barak
was the Arab minority's boycott of the polls. This was seen
by most political commentators as a dangerous step toward
voluntary disenfranchisement of 20 percent of the country.
Arab politicians have worked hard to convince their
constituents that the way to achieve greater economic and
social equality - and to realize the goal of a state for
their Palestinian cousins - is by engaging in the political
But such efforts may now have been in vain. With their two
most outspoken representatives banned, Israeli Arabs are
saying that once again, they will stay away from the polls.
Even if the Supreme Court allows Mr. Tibi and Mr. Bishara
to run, Israeli Arabs will remain reluctant to vote,
because the message of the election committee has been
heard loud and clear in Arab towns and villages.
Who can blame them? No Israeli prime minister has ever
given leaders of the Arab parties significant positions of
power. The argument used to justify the exclusion has been
that cabinet discussions are too sensitive to include
representatives with Palestinian sympathies.
The ban on Mr. Tibi and Mr. Bishara demonstrates that it is
only a short step from excluding parties from the cabinet
to excluding their representatives altogether. By not
protesting this exclusion from government positions, we
have paved the way for the more extreme antidemocracy
measures last week. No matter the decision of the Supreme
Court tomorrow, the damage to Israeli democracy has been
David Newman is professor of political geography at Ben
Gurion University of the Negev.