Leaders of the Israeli Arab community claimed they were being disenfranchised after Israel's Central Elections Committee voted earlier this week to bar two Arab lawmakers serving in the current parliament from contesting the Jan. 28 Knesset elections. The 41-member committee ignored the recommendation of Chairman Mishael Cheshin, a Supreme Court judge, and voted to disqualify Ahmed Tibi and Azmi Bishara. The decision was possible because, according to the Jerusalem Post, the law governing the Knesset "expressly disqualifies the candidacies of parties and individuals who negate Israel's right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state; engage in racist incitement; or support an enemy state or terror organization's armed struggle against the state." Cheshin felt the two Arab MKs should be given "the benefit of the doubt." The committee also disregarded Cheshin's counsel and allowed the candidacy of Baruch Marzel, a former head of the late Meir Kahane's outlawed Kach movement, who once advocated the expulsion of Arabs from Israel. All three cases will be appealed to the Supreme Court.
On Tuesday Yediot Aharonot said the decision sends a clear message: "For the Jewish political system, Arab representatives are illegitimate." On Thursday, the paper's editorial worried that disqualifying Tibi and Bishara would cause a backlash:
We who claim to be the only democracy in the Middle East, so proud of being a bastion of enlightenment, may feel obliged to suggest to our over 1 million Arab fellow-citizens that they vote for some other parties and representatives, but if they choose to vote for the current bunch, that is precisely their right. That is what democracy is all about, even if it allows for the election of people who nauseate us. In fact, many of the Arab voters despise Tibi and Bishara & Co. as much as we do, but they vote for them "just to show us," because of the way we treat their community.
The East Jerusalem daily Al-Quds made a similar point: For 54 years Israel has styled itself as "an oasis of democracy in a Middle Eastern desert swept by the winds of tyranny and dictatorship. … But the events of the past few days have revealed how much dirt has been swept under the brightly colored carpet of Israeli democracy." The disqualification of Tibi and Bishara "has clarified to the world that Israel's professed democracy is nothing more than a limited share holding company whose stock is held by Israeli Jews." (Translation courtesy of the Lebanon Daily Star's "Arab Press Review.")
The Jerusalem Post supported the CEC and denied the committee had employed a double standard in its treatment of Marzel. It said he "has expressly distanced himself from his past positions, stating in a written affidavit to the CEC that he opposes violence, recognizes democracy as 'the only possible method of government,' and rejects statements directed against Arabs in general. … Whereas [Marzel] has sought to forswear his past, [Tibi and Bishara] have continued to relish in theirs. They have no place in Israel's democracy."
Several papers felt it was a mistake to empower the CEC to decide electoral eligibility. As the Jerusalem Post explained, in addition to a representative of the Supreme Court, the committee "is composed of representatives of the various Knesset factions based on the representational key of roughly one member for each four MKs from large parties with special provisions for representatives of small factions." Ha'aretz dismissed the committee as a bunch of instruction-following also-rans: "[It] is comprised mainly of second-rate political hacks chosen in line with criteria that are murky at best." The op-ed continued, "Anyone monitoring the three days of discussion at the CEC this week could have seen that a fair proportion of the party reps … didn't bother even to read through the stacks of written testimony submitted by the petitioners; some didn't even sit still to listen to the arguments." In another piece, Ha'aretz said the CEC's decision proved it was "an unbridled political body that takes no account of the fundamental principles of Israeli parliamentarianism." The task of authorizing or disqualifying parliamentary candidates "does not belong with an organization whose members are almost all involved in day-to-day politics and are motivated by political considerations."