Michael Kleiner, the leader of the extreme right-wing Herut party, has long been preparing for the day when Balad (National Democratic Alliance) registers for the race for the 16th Knesset. He has been following the party's actions and documenting the moves of its leader Dr. Azmi Bishara. "There is no doubt that I will demand that the Central Elections Committee disqualify Balad," Kleiner declares. "Both because it is a cover-up for illegal activity and because of the new law that deals with parties supporting terror organizations. We have Bishara's famous speech in Syria and we have documentation of other speeches. Our claim is that Balad is disqualified from running in the Knesset elections because it supports terror organizations, identifies with the enemy and acts against Israel as a Jewish and democratic state."

The Central Elections Committee will hear a similar claim from Likud MK Michael Eitan, who announced last week that he will demand the disqualification of Dr. Ahmed Tibi's Ta'al (Arab Movement for Renewal) party. Eitan and Kleiner will try to utilize a new amendment to the basic law on the Knesset. The two were the main initiators of the amendment, according to which "A list shall not participate in the Knesset elections and a person shall not be a candidate if the goals of the list or person - expressly or by implication - support the struggle of an enemy state or the armed struggle of a terror organization against the state of Israel."

Eitan says that he will present the Central Elections Committee with newspaper clippings and video tapes as evidence of Tibi's support for Palestinian terror, and his abuse of his role in Israel's Knesset to represent the PLO and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.

Bishara and Tibi were not surprised. An attempt to disqualify Bishara (Tibi was still his partner then) had already been made on the eve of the 1999 elections, due to his support for the idea of turning Israel into a "country for all its citizens," rather than a Jewish state. Now, after the Knesset approved the amendment to its basic law and two additional amendments to elections laws, the possibility that such a move will succeed seems more likely than ever.

Statements made by Arab members of Knesset since the beginning of the Al Aqsa Intifada and meetings they held with senior members of organizations in the territories have been the subject of police investigations and rulings by the Attorney General over the past two years. Tibi's immunity has been limited and Bishara's immunity has been lifted in order to indict him for the praise he voiced for the armed struggle of Hezbollah against Israel, and the illegal visits of Israeli citizens to Syria, which he organized.

But the amendments to the election laws do not relate to statements made by candidates before May 15, when the amendments were passed. "Tibi and Bishara are smart," says a university professor and close associate of theirs, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Ever since the laws were passed by the Knesset, they knew where this would be leading. I have followed their statements and activities. They have been very careful and understand they are walking a tight rope. If you look at what they have been saying since that date on suicide terrorists, in public as well as in small gatherings, you won't find one clear statement saying `we support these actions against the occupation'. You must understand that they receive legal advice and are aware of the limitations. They criticize the limits on their freedom of speech, but they are not prepared to put their careers on the line."

If the Central Elections Committee will be persuaded to disqualify a candidate or a list, the High Court of Justice will have to approve the move, and such an approval will have far reaching results. "If this happens," says Bishara, "Balad is expected to call for a boycott of the elections." His deputy, Jamal Zahlaka, says that such a move "will signal a turning point in the relations between Arab citizens and the state, and cause deep alienation. There is no point in predicting what exactly will happen, maybe apathy, but the impact will be not only on our party, it could bring to the collapse of all the Arab parties."

But no one in the political and judicial systems is prepared to bet that the attempt to disqualify parties will be successful. "This move will not succeed," says attorney Mohammed Dahle of the Adallah center. "One reason is that the atmosphere in the High Court is different. In its recent rulings the court has shown a different attitude to issues regarding the Arab public in Israel. The High Court of Justice will not lend its hand to such a move, it's a step too far. This is not what Israeli society needs."

A central campaign issue

But even though the chances for approval of the disqualification requests are not high, it seems that they will become a central issue in the upcoming elections campaign - both in the right-wing and among the Arab parties themselves. "Tibi and Bishara will try to make political gains of the attacks on their freedom of speech," according to Professor Gabi Sheffer from the Department of Political Science at the Hebrew University. "Perhaps it won't be at the center of the campaign, but it will be present, and other Arab parties will probably use it. The extreme right-wing parties? There is not doubt they will refer to this issue."

"The campaign to de-legitimize Arab members of Knesset will certainly be one of the topics we intend to cover," Tibi confirms. "Since the beginning of the Knesset tenure right-wing MKs, headed by Kleiner, have been trying to ride the anti-Arab wave, which has become a winning ticket," Tibi said.