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Overriding the opinion of Central Elections Committee Chairman and High Court Justice Mishael Cheshin, the elections panel voted early Wednesday to disqualify Arab MK Azmi Bishara and his Balad party from running for Knesset in the January 28 general elections.

The decision, taken by a one-vote margin, followed controversial decisions earlier this week to disqualify the Knesset candidacy of Arab MK Ahmed Tibi and allow extreme rightist Baruch Marzel to run.

Cheshin was quoted as telling the committee that Bishara's past expressions of support of the militant pro-Iranian Hezbollah in Lebanon had angered him, but that "Israel's democracy is strong and can tolerate irregular cases."

The move to disqualify Bishara and Balad was supported by Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein, who charged that they reject Israel's existence as the state of the Jewish people and support the armed struggle against Israel. By law, either is sufficient to disqualify either a party or an individual.

But CEC Cheshin said that he opposed disqualifying either Bishara or Balad, saying there was insufficient evidence for such a move.

Yesterday, Bishara tried to address all the points raised by Rubinstein, one by one.

"I believe that a people living under occupation has the right to fight against it, but I never called on the Palestinians to embark on an armed struggle against Israel. I never supported violent activity," he said.

Cheshin and several commission members tried to elicit a clear denunciation from Bishara of attacks on either civilians, soldiers or settlers, in Israel or in the territories. Bishara's response was: "Attacks on innocent civilians, wherever they are, are unacceptable to me."

Asked why he has never publicly denounced attacks on women and children, he responded that no law obliges him to do so, but on the personal level, he is appalled by the murder of children, or by incidents such as the lynching of two reservists in Ramallah at the start of the intifada.

Bishara attacked Rubinstein not only for requesting his disqualification, but also for supporting his request with material about Bishara collected by the Shin Bet security service. This material, he charged, contained "blatant lies" - such as that he had urged Balad supporters to throw stones at demonstrations or that he favors expelling all Jews who immigrated after 1948.

The attorney general's representative told the committee earlier Tuesday that the Shin Bet had passed on information indicating that Bishara supports military activity against Israel and opposes the Jewish character of the state.

"Balad's political-diplomatic line is support of Hezbollah," she said. "They want to create a state on the ruins of the State of Israel."

Likud MK Yisrael Katz told the committee Tuesday that Bishara supported Hezbollah in Syria and encouraged the militant organization to attack Israel.

"Azmi Bishara embodies more than anyone - in a systematic, clear and emphatic way - the support of terror and opposition to the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state," Katz told reporters. "We must not have a Knesset member of this kind here."

The Gush Shalom (Peace Bloc) activist group criticized the discussion in the CEC on the possible banning of Azmi Bishara and his Balad list, saying it introduces into the committee the aggressive, predatory and racist majority of the extreme right, "a majority in favor of the racist ideas of Baruch Marzel that advocate banning Arab MKs."

"This undermines democracy in Israel, carried out by the extreme right with the aid of the Shin Bet, that is trying to expel the Arabs - 20 percent of the state's citizens - from the political arena, and in this way achieve an absolute majority for the extreme right in the Knesset," a Gush Shalom spokesman said.

"The price of this political transfer of the Arab population will be a deep and irreversible division between Jews and Arabs in Israel."

Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit Tuesday criticized as a "blunder" the committee's decisions in the Marzel and Tibi cases, which ran directly counter to the recommendations of committee chairman High Court Justice Mishael Cheshin.

Tibi, who was disqualified from running in the January 28 Knesset elections in a controversial elections committee decision Monday, has called the ruling a "black day" for Israeli democracy and said he intends to appeal the decision to the High Court of Justice.

Cheshin had called on committee members not to disqualify Tibi's candidacy, despite Cheshin's determination that "he often treads a very dangerous tightrope" and makes disturbing remarks. Cheshin called the disqualification "a bad and incorrect decision."

The panel's decision to disqualify Tibi also contradicted Rubinstein's recommendation. The High Court will have to decide on the matter by January 9.