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Some disturbing twists in the road of Israeli "Democracy" posted in the NY Times

by Marc Wednesday, Jan. 08, 2003 at 12:15 AM

A Decision That Hurts Israeli Democracy January 6, 2003 By DAVID NEWMAN

BEERSHEBA, Israel

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

Jewish state.

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

denied.

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

process.

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

done.



David Newman is professor of political geography at Ben

Gurion University of the Negev.

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