Israel's Central Elections Committee decided on Wednesday not to disqualify Arab parties Balad and the United Arab List (Ra'am)-Ta’al from running for the 19th Knesset.

However, the committee voted to disqualify MK Hanin Zuabi (Balad). The decision was based chiefly on her involvement in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in May 2010.

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The committee has yet to decide on petitions to ban the far right-wing party Otzma Leyisrael (‏Strength for Israel‏), headed by Michael Ben Ari and Aryeh Eldad, on the grounds it rejects the concept of Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state; and the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism on the grounds they bar women from running.

As the meeting got under way, MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu) presented his petition to bar Zuabi from running: “To say that a member of Knesset was aboard the Mavi Marmara does not constitute the critical mass equaling support for a terrorist organization reflects a lack of understanding of what happened aboard that ship.”

MK Aryeh Eldad (Otzma Leyisrael) said: “I am a doctor and believe in preventive medicine. You don’t have to wait for people to be caught spying or committing treason before barring them from running.”

In a heated moment during the debate, MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta'al) sharply criticized the committee members and its head, Judge Elyakim Rubinstein. "This is a political committee partly comprised of decent people – I am here because of you," Tibi told Rubinstein. "But it is made up of third-rate politicians and frustrated lawyers looking to make headlines at our expense."

Rubinstein struggled to contain the members' angry response to Tibi's statements. "Shut up for a minute, for God's sake, you are talking as if you are in the market," Rubinstein said. "You're offended? Fine, I'm offended too. Enough!"

Rubinstein protested Tibi's refusal to apologize, adding that "every person here is first-rate. "He then temporarily adjourned the meeting to let the sides calm down.

Zuabi said in response to the vote that "the decision is a result of political vengeance and a pathetic attempt to harm the representation of the Arab public." She added that she is convinced that "the struggle for full equality is the only way possible toward a democracy."

According to Zuabi, "the members of the elections committee blatantly ignored the unequivocal advice of the Attorney General, which said there is no legal basis for the disqualification."

"It is now clear that the elections committee is a political body meant to harm the representatives of the Arab public, and has nothing to do with democracy," she said. "Instead of holding a public debate, they wish to silence me and with me a whole demographic, and we will not cooperate with such silencing."

Minutes before the meeting started, Balad members held a press conference in which chairman Jamal Zahalka announced: “If Zuabi is disqualified, I will not run in this election and will advise the party to boycott it.” Zuabi herself responded:

"Disqualifying me means disqualifying an entire generation of young Arabs.”
Balad representatives announced on Wednesday that they would not appear before the committee, and that their attorneys would present the party’s position in their stead.

Balad members are also saying they have no intention of letting right-wing parties make political hay at the expense of duly elected representatives of the Arab public.

Affidavits submitted to the committee asserted that the petitions were not based on any evidence whatsoever and are part of a racially tainted process of delegitimization the current coalition is leading against Arab citizens.

"The petitions are based on isolated and inaccurate quotations published on various websites and therefore do not justify a serious debate,” said the attorneys representing Adalah - the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.

Representatives of the UAL-Ta’al have decided to appear before the committee to present the party’s position. A party spokesperson said they would appear to fight the groundless accusations and ensure their position was documented before the High Court of Justice takes the matter up.

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein earlier this week expressed his opposition to all petitions submitted on the subject on grounds of there being insufficient basis for proving the accusations raised.

Prior to the previous elections in 2009, the committee also voted to ban Balad and the United Arab List (Ra'am)-Ta’al. In the election for the 16th Knesset in 2003, the committee disqualified MKs Tibi and Azmi Bishara.

But the High Court of Justice has time and again overturned such decisions. Of the ten decisions made by the Central Elections Committee to disqualify parties or individuals from the election process, the High Court of Justice upheld only three: The Socialist Party was banned in 1964 and Kach and Kahana Chai were banned in 1988 and 1992.

Shas and United Torah Judaism on Tuesday aroused the ire of the political establishment after they submitted their responses to the petitions seeking to bar their running. “The parties operate on the basis of Jewish religious law, which mandates a clear separation between men and women on the grounds of modesty. Men have one role and women another. This division of labor does not represent marginalization of women, discrimination against women, or a belief that women are inferior to men,” read the statement submitted by the parties’ legal counsel. It went on to say: “A great number of women voters will refuse to vote for our parties should our slates include women.”

Yael German, the mayor of Herzliya and number three on the Yesh Atid slate, condemned the two parties. “The exclusion of women from politics by the ultra-Orthodox parties reflects a thoroughly backward, unenlightened position and is a grave risk to Israeli society,” said German, and added: “The state has the responsibility to prevent the phenomenon of excluding women from rearing its ugly head. This is precisely the reason Yesh Atid will make sure that the exclusion of women becomes a criminal offense.”

Labor and Meretz announced they would not support any petition to disqualify a party. Before the Central Elections Committee convened its meeting, MK Isaac Herzog (Labor faction whip) said:

“We view freedom of expression and freedom of opinion as the very lifeblood of Israel’s democracy and we firmly believe in this principle. Any disqualification, whether from the left or the right, is a slippery slope, especially at a time when we must stand firm to ensure the existence of democracy, despite our disgust with many of the statements and positions expressed by various parties and Knesset members whose banning is under discussion. They may be very far from our own philosophy but barring them would be a dangerous mistake.”