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Israeli Arabs say move to ban party unfair

NAZARETH, Dec. 23 (JTA) — Nearly two years ago, in Israel’s last elections, members of Azmi Beshara’s Balad Party spearheaded the public campaign among Israel’s Arab citizens to boycott the elections. Now Balad has taken a U-turn: It is launching an international campaign against Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein’s demand to ban the party from running in the upcoming general elections. Rubinstein’s request to the Central Elections Committee to disqualify Balad relies on a recent amendment to the Basic Law: The Knesset banning parties that negate “Israel’s existence as a Jewish state and express support for the armed struggle against Israel.” At stake not is only the status of one Arab party: The attempt could impact the already-fragile relations between the Jewish state and its Arab citizens. The Central Elections Committee will have to define the thin line between the political rights of the Arab population and the possible challenge to the very existence of the state. In other words, it will have to decide how Arab an Arab party can be. Rubinstein came to the elections committee with a thick portfolio of documents — many of them from the Shin Bet security Service’s secret archives — designed to prove that “Balad is putting on a mask.” In other words, the party, which claims to be a legitimate political organ of Israel’s Arabs, actually is a tool in the effort to destroy Israel as a Jewish state, Rubinstein claims. The main points Rubinstein raised: • On June 2001, at a rally in Damascus, Beshara called for “a united Arab stand to expand the resistance against Israel.” • In September 2000, even before the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada, Beshara met with Hamas representatives in Hebron and told them that as a member of the Knesset he was a tool in the Arab struggle against Israel. He allegedly told them that he had urged Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to form a united Palestinian front and unilaterally declare a Palestinian state, a move that Israel’s Arab citizens would endorse. • Balad has a “hidden agenda” that calls for the creation of a secular state in place of the Jewish state. The boundaries of the new state would lie “from the Jordan River to the” Mediterranean Sea. Only a minority of Israeli Jews — those who lived in Palestine before 1948, and their descendants — would be allowed to live there. Beshara has denounced the charges against him as “a lie and a libel.” He asked why the attorney general is using the Shin Bet to try to disqualify a political party, and launched an email campaign directed at human rights organizations, members of Parliaments and other public figures throughout the world, protesting the attempt to “deprive Israel’s Arabs of their political rights” and “enforce Zionist ideology.” Beshara, 46, undoubtedly is the No. 1 ideologue in the Israeli Arab political arena. Despite his limited political power, his call for “a state of all its citizens” — which would strip Israel of its Jewish nature — has had a tremendous impact on the political thinking of Israel’s Arab population, and has been adopted by the other major Israeli Arab parties. Although his faction holds just one seat in the Knesset, Beshara has worked hard to establish himself as the prime alternative to the growing influence of the Islamic Movement in Israeli Arab politics. Recent polls show that he is still far from reaching that goal, because Beshara may be more radical than his voters. A survey conducted by Sammy Smooha and As’ad Ghanem of Haifa University projected that the Communist Hadash party — which recently formed an alliance with legislator Dr. Ahmed Tibi — would become the strongest Arab party in the next elections, with four mandates. The United Arab List, which is strongly influenced by the Islamic Movement, would shrink from five seats to three, and Balad would win two Knesset seats, according to the polls. The survey also showed that Israeli Arabs would not boycott the Jan. 28 elections, as they did in February 2001. Some 71 percent plan to vote, and a quarter of those would vote for Jewish parties. The survey also found a reversal of the trend of “Palestinization” among Israeli Arabs. Nearly 45 percent identified themselves not as Palestinians but primarily as Israeli Arabs, reversing a trend that had seen Arabs’ self-identification as Israelis drop from 54 percent in 1995 to 34 percent in early 2001. The researchers said the change was due primarily to disappointment with the results of the Palestinian intifada against Israel. Smooha and As’ad conclude that banning Balad will not create a “political earthquake” among Arab voters. Based on their survey — which was held prior to the attorney-general’s request — they said that Balad supporters would boycott the elections, but supporters of other Arab parties would not. Some analysts, however, argue that banning Balad would have repercussions beyond the Arab electorate. Writing in the Ma’ariv newspaper, commentator Yehuda Litani said Rubinstein’s appeal might already have produced an additional Knesset seat for Balad. If Balad is disqualified and its voters boycott the elections, Litani said, the chances that the Labor Party could prevent the Likud Party from forming the next government would become even slimmer. Prior to his move against Balad, Rubinstein asked the Central Elections Committee to ban the candidacy of Baruch Marzel, an activist from the far-right Herut Party, for allegedly promoting racist views. Some critics see the move as an attempt to balance Rubinstein’s push against Balad. Shawki Khatib, head of the Supreme Monitoring Committee of Israeli Arabs — an organization of Arab mayors, legislators and other public figures — came out in defense of Balad’s right to run in the elections. Khatib, himself a member of Hadash, argued that no democratic state can ignore Beshara’s message that the state belongs to “all its citizens.” The Central Elections Committee will begin reviewing a number of appeals to disqualify parties next week. Petitions to do so also have been filed against Hadash and Herut. If the committee bans any of the parties, they can appeal to the High Court of Justice. The process should be completed by Jan. 6, more than three weeks before the elections. The Central Elections Committee is chaired by Supreme Court Justice Michael Heshin, and includes representatives of the various parties. Though the votes to ban the parties may be there, the committee is unlikely to rush to take drastic measures.

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