Panel bars two Arab legislators

Azmi Beshara sits in his assigned seat during a Nov. 2001 Knesset session, on the day Israeli lawmakers lifted his parliamentary immunity. (Brian Hendler)

Azmi Beshara sits in his assigned seat during a Nov. 2001 Knesset session, on the day Israeli lawmakers lifted his parliamentary immunity. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM, Jan. 2 (JTA) — Several Israeli politicians are warning that partisan politics have overtaken the Central Elections Committee, posing a potential threat to Israeli democracy. The condemnations came after the committee voted to bar two Arab candidates from running in the Jan. 28 elections, while approving the bid of a far-right Jewish candidate. In separate decisions, the committee barred legislator Ahmed Tibi, a former top adviser to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, saying he had supported Palestinian attacks against Israel. Legislator Azmi Beshara and his Balad Party were barred on similar grounds, as well as claims that his party aimed to destroy the Jewish nature of the state. But the committee upheld the candidacy of Baruch Marzel, a former activist in the outlawed Kach movement, after he told the panel that he had repudiated his extremist views. In each of the votes, the committee members, who represent various political parties, went against the recommendation of the committee chairman, Supreme Court Justice Michael Cheshin. The rulings spurred a flurry of appeals to the Supreme Court, where they will be heard by an expanded panel of 11 justices on Jan. 7. The candidates and parties running in the election must be finalized by Jan. 9. The initial petitions to the elections panel to bar the Arab candidates came from right-wing legislators; protests over the decisions came from the left. Amnon Rubinstein, dean of the law faculty at the Interdisciplinary Institute in Herzliya and a former Cabinet member from the Meretz Party, said the committee’s decisions were “pure politics.” Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres of Labor joined the growing number of left-wing legislators saying that decisions on which parties to approve or exclude from elections should be left to judicial authorities. But while some saw a double standard in the decisions, the Jerusalem Post defended them. Whereas Marzel “has sought to forswear his past, the” two Arab legislators “have continued to relish in theirs. They have no place in Israel’s democracy,” the paper wrote in an editorial. Once limited in its responsibilities to technical matters, such as approving the letters that appear on a party’s ballot and checking the number of signatures needed to register, the committee’s abilities were dramatically broadened by passage of a new law, which authorized the committee to disqualify a party or candidate if the objectives or actions negate the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state or incite to racism. The committee exercised this authority in 1988, when it banned the late Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Kach Party from elections. This week, Beshara said he is optimistic because Cheshin had reversed his own position at the last minute, and recommended against barring Beshara. He said he hopes the Supreme Court would take a similar view and overturn his decision. He warned that the latest decisions would further disenfranchise Arab voters, and suggested that if the bans on Arab candidates hold, Arab citizens could stage a mass boycott of the elections, as they did in the last vote in February 2001. President Moshe Katsav this week urged Israeli Arabs not to boycott the vote. Ultimately, he said, the number of Arab legislators who serve in the Knesset would be determined by the voters, not an elections committee.

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