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The Central Elections Committee, the government watchdog meant to oversee the democratic process, appeared to have turned on its handler this week, raising fears over the direction of Israeli democracy as the panel quashed the Knesset candidacy of Israel's best known Arab lawmakers, while giving a green light to a former senior aide and onetime successor to Meir Kahane.

In short order, the Central Elections Committee flew in the face of recommendations by the Attorney General and the Supreme Court justice that chairs the panel, allowing former extremist Kach movement leader Baruch Marzel to remain on the ballot for the January 28 elections, then disqualifying the candidacy of Arab legislator Ahmed Tibi

Early on Wednesday, the committee again defied the advice of its chairman, narrowly striking down the candidacy of firebrand Arab lawmaker Azmi Bishara.

Ironically, the law under which Tibi and Bishara were banned was last strengthened in order to bar the avowedly anti-Arab Kahane from politics. As amended in 1985, the law states that "A candidates' list shall not participate in elections to the Knesset if its objects or actions, expressly or by implication, include one of the following: 1) negation of the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people; 2) negation of the democratic character of the State; 3) incitement to racism."

The language of the law points to bedrock tensions in a society struggling to balance clashing aspirations and demands. The years of the Palestinian uprising have sharpened the debate, two poles of which are represented by Israeli Arabs striving for equality and freedom of expression and identity, and the right wing pressing for a state in which security, settlement, and the sensitivities of observant Jews are paramount.

Bishara, an outspoken champion of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, enraged Israelis in the past by sitting alongside militant Hezbollah leader Shiekh Hassan Nasrallah at a Damascus political conference, later delivering an address widely viewed as having supported attacks on Israel.

Unapologetic about his past actions, Bishara denies charges that he endorses armed struggle. But Israeli critics point out that he continues to maintains that people under occupation "have the right to resist occupation."

Committee Chairman Mishael Cheshin, a respected Supreme Court Justice, still reeling from the committee's decisions to override his views – and those of Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein – in the Marzel and Tibi cases, told the panel late Tuesday that Bishara's past expressions of support for the pro-Iranian Hezbollah had angered him. Nonetheless, he said, "Israel's democracy is strong and can tolerate irregular cases." He said there was insufficient evidence to disqualify Bishara or Balad.

In contrast to the Tibi and Marzel cases, Rubinstein had charged that Bishara and Balad rejected Israel's existence as the state of the Jewish people and supported the armed struggle against Israel.

The committee action was the latest in a series of recent moves which have sparked fierce discussion over the future of democracy in Israel. Last month, a rarely enforced censorship statute was invoked to prohibit the showing of a prominent Israeli Arab actor-director's documentary film on IDF actions in the Jenin refugee camp. An effort is also underway to curb and perhaps outlaw the Islamic Movement, an Israeli Arab political organization active largely in the north.

Concern for the democratic process has also risen as a result of burgeoning police probes into allegations of bribery, blackmail, granting of sexual favors, and involvement of racketeers in the December 8 Likud Knesset primary elections.

Civil liberty issues have meanwhile been raised in published drafts of the platform of the far-right National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu party, whose leaders openly advocate what they call "voluntary transfer" of Palestinians. The draft platform also reportedly calls for a state which is "Jewish first and foremost, and which is also democratic."

The makeup of the elections committee has also become a focus of controversy. State-owned Israel Radio said the panel, composed largely of representatives of political parties, had a substantial percentage of "third and fourth rate party hacks."

The impression of a distinguished judge presiding over a revolving contingent of aparatchiks was reinforced this week, when Elections Committee Vice-Chairman Yehuda Avidan of the ultra-Orthodox Shas told Justice Cheshin that "People came in here with formed opinions, and I'm sorry to say, none of us give a fig about the judge or anyone else."

Cheshin told the committee that Kach was so extreme a movement that one would have to immerse oneself "in a river 70 times until you were purified from the germ that had infected you."

The committee was unswayed. "We're simple people, we're not attorneys," Avidan later said in a broadcast interview. "We have to judge a man by his deeds and his declarations," Avidan said of Marzel – frequently arrested in the past for assaulting police. "He got up and testified, I'm not in 'Kahane' anymore, and we have to accept his expression of remorse."

The panel also included Haim Avraham, father of one of the three Israeli soldiers kidnapped and apparently killed by Hezbollah at the beginning of the intifada. In the end, Avraham cast the deciding vote to disqualify Bishara's candidacy.

The High Court is to hear appeals to the disqualifications on Tuesday, as well as legal challenges to the decision to allow Baruch Marzel to run. Marzel insists that he no longer has ties to Kach, the extreme movement founded by Kahane and headed by Marzel after Kahane's 1990 assassination. The Rabin government declared Kach a terrorist organization and outlawed it after Kach voiced support for the actions of the Hebron-area settler who killed 29 Palestinian worshippers in a 1994 mosque massacre.

Arab politicians and pollsters warned Wednesday that if the court allows the disqualifications to stand, a sharply-felt boycott by Arab voters would likely ensue.

The very fact that parties are being disqualified from Knesset candidacy is in itself an indication that Israeli democracy is threatened, observes Ha'aretz commentator Avirama Golan. "It is a sign of a weakened democracy, a democracy in panic. A democracy that feels confidence in itself need not, and dies not, disqualify parties in this manner."

Another difference between Israel and less threatened democracies, Golan argues, is that "those who enter politics in such a democracy know the red lines that may not be crossed. By definition, for example, no party in the United States will propose the repeal of the Constitution as part of its platform. Here that can happen."

She cites Bishara 's Balad movement as an example. "By definition, his party challenges the most basic definition of a democratic Jewish state. You can like the definition or dislike it, you can consider it problematic or hope that someday it will be changed, but this remains the definition at the foundation of the nation, as well as the foundation of the Declaration of Independence."

Azmi Bishara is an "intellectual of world caliber, and I admire him greatly," Golan concluded. However, she said, apart from Bishara's remarks in Syria, "He brings the politics of Israeli Arabs to the lowest point of despair, at which deep down, at the end of the day, he cannot accept the existence of a Jewish state of Israel.

"[His party's] goal is to reach the Knesset in the democratic Jewish Israel in order to create a situation in which the state Israel will no longer exists as a democratic Jewish state."

Still, in the end, the greatest threats to Israeli democracy could come from the Jewish right, Golan concludes. Although Marzel pays a certain verbal allegiance to Israel's character as a democratic Jewish state, there is reason to believe that his assurances are less than totally honest, she says.

"Azmi Bishara and Baruch Marzel are clear allies in the battle against Zionism."