The decisions of successive Israeli central elections committees to bar Arab lists from participating in the ballot has become a fixed ritual. The committee, political by makeup and populist in the lead up to elections, decides to ban them - and the High Court of Justice duly overturns their decision. The justices, who have consistently upheld the precedent first set by the High Court twenty years ago, usually extol the sanctity of the right to be elected, stipulating that irrefutable evidence is needed in order for it to be revoked. Such evidence, the judges ruled over and over, was not supplied to the committee before it made its decision.
The Elections Committee decision on Wednesday to bar the Arab nationalist Balad Party along with Dr. Ofer Cassif, the sole Jewish candidate on the combined Arab list of Communist Hadash and Ta’al, headed by the popular MK Ahmed Tibi, is widely expected to be struck down by the Court, although its increasingly conservative makeup could make for surprises. The right wing will benefit in any case: If the Court decides to stray from custom and to allow the Committee’s decisions to stand, the right will hail it as a historic turning point. If the Court annuls the Committee’s bans, the right will attack it as a leftist, Arab-loving enclave, with the added benefit of retaining Balad in the next Knesset as the favorite punching bag of Jewish politicians in search of headlines.
It’s reasonable to assume that most of the Israeli public supports the disqualification of Balad. The High Court may be fulfilling its role as the last bastion of Israeli democracy, but public opinion will find it hard to understand how the radical Arab party does not meet two of the three criteria listed in Basic Law: The Knesset for disqualification: Negation of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and support for the armed struggle against Israel. Expressions of such sentiments by Balad leaders can be easily found on Google.
By the same token – though with far less murmuring, unfortunately, in Israeli public opinion – it’s equally difficult to see how the Kahanist extremists of Otzma Yehudit don’t merit disqualification in accordance with the third and last criterion – incitement to racism – never mind the party’s statements against anything that smells remotely of democracy, expect for majority rule by Jews.
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The issue is admittedly complex. On the one hand, there is the need for democracies to “defend themselves”, a concept that matured after the Second World War and the lessons of the Nazi rise to power in Weimar Germany, and on the other hand the commitment to the basic democratic right to vote and be elected. Then there is the danger that the committee’s powers could be abused by the government in power to silence rivals and to promote allies, no matter how odious their views may be. Judging by the attitudes and policies of Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition over the past four years, there should be no doubt that this would be the outcome if the High Court decides to shut its watchful eyes.
But while the back and forth is boringly familiar to most Israelis, the special circumstances surrounding the April 9 election and the unusual interest shown in them throughout the Western world make the committee’s decision into yet another nail in the coffin of Israel’s image as a liberal and enlightened country. The committee’s decisions indicate that the growing tolerance of Jewish supremacists and the ongoing efforts to sideline the Arab minority shouldn’t be ascribed to Netanyahu’s influence alone. They reflect the consensus of his majority coalition, which, in the case of Balad, was endorsed by Yesh Atid, the party headed by Yair Lapid, partner of Netanyahu’s main rival, Benny Gantz.
Insofar as international public opinion takes an interest in Israel, most are unlikely to follow the deliberations of an obscure Israeli Elections Committee. Those who will read the numerous reports on the topic that appeared in the foreign press will probably make do with the headlines and with the impression they left on them: A political committee, headed by a Supreme Court justice but beholden to Netanyahu, embraced right-wing racists and ejected Israeli-Palestinian extremists. So what else is new?
Israelis may rail at the distortion and experts can easily cite evidence and public statements that justify the committee’s decisions, but the effort would be in vain. A country led by a man who openly and deceptively incited against Arabs on the last Election Day in 2015 and who has now picked up where he left off, run by a government that has turned a blind eye to the occupation and the peace process and is proud of its Nation-State Law, which was also inexplicable and inexcusable to most foreigners, is like a recidivist offender whose conviction is guaranteed. The Committee’s one-sided decisions are but another symptom, many will deduce, of the dangerous submersion of Netanyahu’s Israel in the darkness of hyper-nationalism and ethnocentrism.
It doesn’t take much of an effort to understand where Israel’s critics are coming from. The Republican efforts to stifle minority votes and to magnify the impact of white voters elicit similar negative reactions in international public opinion. Given that Israel’s image has sunk to unprecedented depth among liberals, it is not too far fetched, in this context, to use the precedent of South Africa under apartheid as well, mutatis mutandis.
Israelis only need to ask themselves how they might have reacted a few decades ago to reports of a Pretoria election board dominated by the whites deciding to ban a black party, extreme as it may be, which has served in parliament for twenty years and its parallel approval of a party that was never represented in parliament, calls for the forced removal of blacks from South Africa and was warmly embraced by the country’s leader, either as a matter of political expediency or out of true identification with its positions. And how they would have laughed off efforts to justify the ban and to present it as a manifestation of the only democracy in southern Africa, as the apartheid regime once presented itself.