Monday, January 12, 2009

Israeli Arab Parties Disqualified from Elections

Logo of Bala"d (acronym for "National Democratic Assembly")

In a shocking and shameful decision, the Central Elections Committee (see English)  today (English) disqualified Bala"d and Ra"am-Ta"l, two Israeli Arab parties, from running in the upcoming 18th Knesset election. The disqualification hinged on the votes of the representatives from Kadima and the Labor Party on the committee. Kadima apparently endorsed the disqualification of both the parties, while the Labor Party voted only to disqualify Balad. To no one's surprise, the right-wing parties were jubilant about the outcome. Avigdor Liberman, most notably, called it the first step in a bid to outlaw the parties entirely. While the Arab parties themselves boycotted the vote, only Meretz, it appears, voted against the disqualification moves. 

From the coverage, it is unclear on what grounds the parties were disqualified. Past attempts to disqualify the parties were struck down by the Supreme Court. In conversation with Carmia, Meretz's Zehava Gal-On expressed confidence that this would be the likely outcome again, once the disqualification is challenged in the court. Nevertheless, Gal-On expressed consternation about Labor's support for the measure. She said it was "unimaginable that something like this could happen in the State of Israel."

Gal-On is right. I am no fan of these parties and the politics of their leaders. In fact, I abhor them as much as I do their counterparts on the far right. But the rationale given by Eitan Cabel for his support of the disqualification was so flimsy as to seriously cast doubt on the man's judgment. Apparently Cabel objected to the "defiance" of Jamal Zahalka at the committee hearings. Cabel referred to his "patriotic feeling" as having swayed his vote. Is this man serious? Is he really going to jeopardize the most basic democratic institutions of the state because of some vague feeling?  

Let's be clear. The behavior of Zahalka, Ahmed Tibi, and, before his abscondance, of Azmi Bishara in the Knesset is often repulsive. Many reasonable people can find their views odious. But are they inciting to ethnic hatred, as other disqualified parties were found to have done? Can it be proven that they are actively working to eliminate the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people? These are the two conditions for which parties may be disqualified. 

What this looks like is an exercise in stifling dissent. It is an attempt to outlaw "unpopular" opinions. The Arab parties, just like the right-wing, centrist, and left-wing Zionist parties deserve to be criticized, lampooned, vigorously opposed using democratic means. But as long as they are not breaking the law, they cannot be outlawed simply because they don't meet some standard of "patriotism" set by people such as Avigdor Liberman. As long as their struggle is conducted within the means of parliamentary democracy, it must be protected with the utmost resolution. Unless Zahalke et al. are calling for physical attacks against other Israeli citizens and institutions or hoping to accomplish this using the aid of an enemy state or terrorist organization, they have the right to excoriate Israel in whatever terms they see fit. They can even resort to vile, disgusting mischaracterizations of Israeli policy and society to do this. Indeed, they may even lie.  

To me, much of this is depressingly familiar from the days of the Bishara affair. I will not recycle here the arguments I made in its wake. Suffice to say that when so many parliamentarians show a blatant disregard for the basic tenets of liberal democracy, we are in serious trouble. If parties are going to be banned, the evidence must be incontrovertible that they indeed represent forces for which no room exists on the democratic spectrum. Let us hope that the Supreme Court reflects carefully on this matter. Unless there is evidence which has not yet been revealed to the public, a disqualification of Ra"am-Ta"al and Bala"d is unconscionable. 

ADDENDUM: The Parties Law of 1992 has the following limitations on a party's potential registration:
  • Any rejection (in the party's goals or activities) of the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state.
  • Any incitement to racism.
  • Any support of the armed struggle of an enemy state or terrorist organization against the State of Israel
  • Any hint of a cover for illegal activity.

5 comments:

Ariel said...

Here here!

Critiker said...

Hello Amos, this is Critiker speaking:
I would like to imagine what would happen in the United States of America to a "democratic party" that organizes a protest calling for "Death to America", or waving an Al-Quaeda flag. It would be a failure of democracy not to punish such actions. The situation in Israel is quite parallel to this hypothetical case. Even free speech has its limitations in a democratic state, and I cannot fathom how shouting "Death to Israel" is not legally considered a "rejection of the existence of the State of Israel" as well as an "incitement to racism". I hope that all the sufficient evidence is provided in order to legally disqualify these anti-democratic parties from running in the election.

Rebecca said...

No, nothing would happen in the United States if a party organized a protest with signs calling for "Death to America" or waving the Al Qaeda flag. Such a party would have zero chance of gaining votes, but it would be permitted to be organized. In the U.S., the First Amendment to the constitution permits free speech in almost every case, except for explicit incitement to violence (e.g., a speaker telling a crowd to go lynch a specific individual) or child pornography (which is severely punished).

I also abhor the banning of the Arab parties from the upcoming elections. The ban reflects very poorly on Israeli claims to treat Arabs equally with Jews, and at this time in particular is a public relations disaster. I find it particularly shameful that a Labor Party MK voted for it.

Amos said...

Yes, that is correct, Rebecca. As you know, the legal situation In Israel as well as in many Western European democracies, is somewhat different. For example, someone waving a swastika flag in Germany would be prosecuted by the Verfassungsschutz ("Protection of the Constitution" division). I am not sure whether an individual shouting the slogan "Death to Israel" would subject to legal prosecution in Israel.

However, I fail to see the immediate relevance of your analogy to the case at hand, Critiker. I have yet to see any evidence that Zahalka or Tibi were shouting this slogan. I have heard claims that they organized a demonstration at which such slogans were heard; I have not seen any documentation of this on either the online editions of Ha'aretz or Yediot. Furthermore, even if such slogans were aired at demonstrations in Umm al-Fahm or elsewhere, at which members of the two parties were present, it would be quite a leap to make the case that the political parties Balad and Ra"am Ta"l themselves are committed to platforms that contravene the 1992 Parties Law. Such reports may be enough evidence in the court of public opinion to excoriate these parties for being affiliated with such despicable protests. But they are not enough to disqualify the political parties from the democratic process.

Thus, I must conclude, as Ha'aretz's lead editorial yesterday did that there are no legal grounds on which to disqualify the parties, unpopular as their views may be. In fact, the attempt by the far-right National Union and Yisrael Beitenu parties to ban the Arab parties once again represents nothing but an attempt to stifle political expressions that are at odds with the ideologies of the right. Liberman and co. want to impose an integral nationalist ethos on Israeli political culture, which, unfortunately has some resonance with people today due to the difficult security situation. It is the duty of every able Israeli citizen to guard against such attempts to undermine democratic institutions in the state with the utmost vigilance.

Avi said...

@Critiker: Rebecca is right that the First Amendment would require us to allow the kind of protest you describe, provided that it did not directly incite violence. In my mind it would be a huge failure of any democracy to punish dissenting opinions because squelching minority views opens the gate to the road to Facism. For this reason I think that German censorship of Nazi material is a bad position and I prefer the U.S. approach to free speech.

I am extremely concerned by the banning of Arab parties. This disqualification calls into question the democratic nature of Israel. It seems to me that now, after years of dealing with Hamas, Israelis are confronted more than ever before with their identity crisis: the paradox of a Jewish Democracy. This banning appears evidence that more Israelis are choosing a Jewish identification over a democratic one and that worries me. It seems to me that there is far more to be gained in struggling with two competing identities than in choosing one over the other.