Attempt to ban Balad from Israeli election was politically motivated



October 11, 2022

Attempt to ban Balad from Israeli election was politically motivated
Leader of Balad Sami Abu Shehadeh. (Screengrab YouTube)

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Disqualifying a party from contesting an election should be a rare occurrence and should only happen if the party poses a clear and indisputable danger to the very foundations of the democratic system or contravenes the constitutional arrangement. It should never serve as a political tool to prevent an ideological rival from participating in the democratic process.

The decision by Israel’s Central Elections Committee last week to ban the National Democratic Alliance (Balad), a Palestinian party, from running in the upcoming Knesset elections was not a case of protecting the democratic system but a perversion of it. Once again, it was the High Court of Justice that overturned this decision and, in so doing, it acted as the last bastion and defender of Israel’s fragile democracy.

Balad’s ideology is not easy for most of the Jewish population to stomach and the Central Elections Committee justified its decision in a succinct statement claiming that the party was disqualified in accordance with “the Basic Law … for the reason of refusal to recognize the state of Israel as a democratic, Jewish state.” Basic Laws in Israel do indeed serve as constitutional guidance, but the committee’s decision to bar Balad on this ground was disingenuous and unwise.

In fact, Balad, as has been made clear by Chairman Sami Abu Shehadeh, does not oppose the democratic character of the country and its manifesto calls for Israel to become a “state for all its citizens.” Is it not a legitimate call by a party that represents a substantial, discriminated minority to declare that their country should not be constitutionally defined by the ethno-religious attributes of the majority? It is more an act of defiance and desperation in the face of the conditions that the Palestinian citizens of Israel live under.

After all, Israel was mandated by the UN and the vast majority of the population is Jewish —this is not going to change. What can change is for the Palestinian citizens of Israel to be treated with full equality by the state and then calls that question the Jewishness of the country will considerably recede. As one of the representatives of the Palestinian minority, which continues to suffer after more than seven decades of discrimination since Israel’s inception in 1948, it is not illogical or irrational to call for a state that is the embodiment of the character of the entire society, in which the same privileges are equally conferred on all citizens.

It should not come as shocking news that the Palestinian minority in Israel, which compromises about a fifth of the population, is more accepting than embracing of the country’s legally mandated Jewish nature, especially as the society and the state are becoming increasingly religious and nationalistic, with anti-Arab ultranationalists becoming increasingly prominent. Look no further than the Nation State Law of 2018, which declares that “the state of Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people.” This law also relegates the Arabic language from its former status as one of the two official languages along with Hebrew to one that has “special status,” whatever that may mean. To contend that a democratic country is one that belongs to all its citizens and not just those who happen to be of a certain religious or ethnic identity is as indisputable as stating that the sun rises in the east.

It has long been an ugly ritual in the lead-up to every single general election in Israel for some of the Jewish-Zionist parties to appeal to the Central Elections Committee to disqualify Arab parties, accusing them of disloyalty, supporting terrorism or enemy countries, being anti-democratic or opposing the Jewish character of the state. In most cases, even if the committee does disqualify a Palestinian party, its decision is overturned by the High Court of Justice, as was the case with Balad in 2019 and again this year.

At the end of the day, the Jewish politicians who call for these bans are doing so because they believe that this act of nationalistic bravado will pay off at the ballot box. This year, Balad was not the only Arab party the committee was asked to disqualify: Ra’am, which during the life of the outgoing government was one of the most responsible and constructive members of the coalition, has also been the target of an effort by another party to collect some cheap electoral points by “standing up” to an Islamist party by seeking its disqualification from the November elections. The fact that Ra’am has done a tremendous service to Jewish-Arab coexistence means absolutely nothing in the toxic atmosphere of Israel’s political discourse. Thankfully, on this occasion, the committee rejected this request outright.

It is disturbingly ironic, not to mention hypocritical, to call for the disqualification of Palestinian parties while tolerating the Kahanist, racist Religious Zionist Party, which openly and unashamedly calls for discrimination against Arabs, incites against them and portrays the Palestinian citizens of Israel as traitors.

Moreover, even the Jewish population and its representatives in the Knesset cannot agree on what the Jewish character of Israel actually means. This has been one of the most contested notions since the country first came into being. There is secular, Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox and reformist Judaism and everything in between, with many different visions of what a Jewish state should look like, some of which are diametrically opposed to each other.

What can change is for the Palestinian citizens of Israel to be treated with full equality by the state.

Yossi Mekelberg

Some put more emphasis on the Jewish than the democratic character of the country, while others see its heritage as more cultural and historical than religious. And increasingly there is a clash between the Jewish and the democratic nature of the country. For instance, an issue of contention in the current election campaign is whether to allow public transport on the Sabbath. Would anyone dare to try and disqualify a Jewish party that supports the use of public transport on the religious rest day on the grounds that it contradicts the Jewish character of the state?

Yet too many of the Jewish-Zionist parties considered it legitimate and constitutionally valid to try and prevent Balad and even Ra’am from participating in the democratic process. It is time to rethink how Palestinian parties are included in the running of state affairs, not to further marginalize them.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point of view


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