Michael v. Mishael

New wings are currently being added to the Knesset building in a construction project that will cost an estimated NIS 200 million. The work, which is moving ahead at a rapid pace and altering the site's familiar contours, is meant to improve the tenants' quality of life.

1. Michael Eitan is not ashamedNew wings are currently being added to the Knesset building in a construction project that will cost an estimated NIS 200 million. The work, which is moving ahead at a rapid pace and altering the site's familiar contours, is meant to improve the tenants' quality of life: They will have more offices, lounges and common spaces. The new construction is attributed to pressing need: More parliamentary work coupled with an increasing reliance on researchers and advisers has made it necessary to provide the 120 MKs with more comfortable working conditions.

And so, for the past couple of months, bulldozers have been digging up the green area surrounding the Knesset and huge cranes have been hoisting concrete slabs into place. The new structures now rising behind the safety perimeters will turn the familiar site into a sprawling modern complex - the last word in building technology.

This week, the Central Elections Committee (CEC) met on the ground floor of the existing building, and its deliberations exposed the true nature of the people on whose behalf all the frenzied activity outside is taking place. Granted, Knesset members make up only a small portion of the 41-member committee - the rest are second-tier party functionaries, parliamentary aides and faction secretaries - but their discussions and decisions pointed up the irony inherent in the disparity between the quality of the members of the next Knesset and the state-of-the-art quarters being built for them. As if following some unwritten code, the State of Israel is proving that the lower its politicians sink, the better conditions they shall have in which to work.

In 1984, Michael Eitan was a member of the CEC that barred the Kach list from running for the Knesset (after the Supreme Court voided this disqualification, Amendment 9 to the Basic Law: The Knesset, which expressly banned a list advocating a racist platform from participating in the election, was enacted the following year). Eitan was active in that committee's hearings. He prepared a chart that compared the Nazi Nuremberg Laws to the platform of Meir Kahane and illustrated their similarities. Eitan has come a long way since then. This week, he led the CEC to approve the candidacy of Baruch Marzel to run on Michael Kleiner's Herut list, and to disqualify Ahmed Tibi and the Balad list headed by Azmi Bishara from running.

Eitan has been known as a champion of decency. He called for Aryeh Deri's removal from public life after the latter was convicted on bribery charges, for instance. But, two months ago, he also enthusiastically supported his colleague Avraham Hirschson's bill that would allow members of party central committees to be directors of government companies. Now that it's become increasingly clear just what kind of people are members of the Likud Central Committee and what motives were behind their selection of the party's candidates for the Knesset, decent people ought to be hiding their faces in shame for having sought to place responsibility for the running of government companies in such hands.

But Michael Eitan appears to have no misgivings: This week, as deputy-chairman of the CEC and as chairman of the Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, he advocated positions in the CEC that should rightfully mortify anyone who cares about his public legacy.

2. Style and substance

When Azmi Bishara stood at the small podium in the hall where the CEC held its meetings and gave a speech defending his right to stand for election to the Knesset, those present listened with bated breath. Even the representatives of Shas, the National Union and the Likud seemed hypnotized by his words. That is, until Likud MK Yisrael Katz sauntered into the room as if he owned the place and cut Bishara off, saying: "You're a coward. You used to be a man." In other words, now that the sword of banishment from the Knesset is hanging over you, you're softening your positions and presenting yourself in sheep's clothing.

Rudeness is the weapon of choice for the coalition members on the CEC. Michael Eitan and Matityahu Drobles both have powerful vocal chords, which they employed to great effect in clashes with the Arab representatives and with Zahava Gal-On of Meretz. When Yehuda Avidan, the deputy committee chairman from Shas, was at a loss as to how to respond to attorney Amnon Lorch of Labor, he simply raised his voice and warned him that if he continued with such provocations, he would not allow him to open his mouth again and would break up the meeting.

Avidan's exchange with MK Mohammed Barakeh of Hadash went something like this: "Don't tell me to shut up! Why don't you stop acting like a thug? Show me the respect I deserve." Avidan also had grievances against the committee chairman Justice Mishael Cheshin, which he loudly and uninhibitedly proclaimed before the entire assembly, until Cheshin couldn't restrain himself and replied: "I only talk with friends. You are not my friend."

Brazen audacity isn't merely the style here; it's the substance of this committee's activity. As in the Likud primaries, here, too, deals are made shamelessly and motives are not well-hidden. The right-wing coalition sought to weaken the power of the left, and so it stripped Ahmed Tibi and Azmi Bishara, the two most prominent Arab MKs, of their right to run for election. It acted primarily out of cynical political motives - with the aim of angering the Arab public (no less than nine requests for disqualifications of Arab factions and MKs were submitted including, for the first time in the state's history, a request from the attorney general) and causing it to boycott the elections - which would reduce the amount of support for Labor and Meretz. The need to close ranks with the extreme right-wing factions explains the Likud's decision to approve Marzel's candidacy over the explicit objections of Justice Cheshin.

Cheshin, an aristocratic Jerusalemite, found himself facing the frightful temper of the committee members. He tried to keep the discourse on a more civilized track, to no avail. At times, even he could not control himself and vented his true impressions of his committee colleagues: "Maybe they'll listen, but they probably won't understand," he remarked before Azmi Bishara began speaking.

In this election campaign, the Supreme Court, here in the person of Cheshin, is standing as the last barrier of defense of Israeli democracy against the destructive forces erupting within it. Cheshin explains to the CEC members the appropriate criteria by which they should make their decisions; he recommends that they adopt correct positions; he indicates to them the legal boundaries that must not be crossed. But they don't listen to him. The only remaining recourse is now the High Court, which on Tuesday will hear the appeals about decisions made by the CEC in which Cheshin, to his great dismay, repeatedly found himself in the minority.

3. No Arab Zionists

The reasons cited for barring the candidacy of Tibi, Bishara and Balad are their opposition to Israel's existence as a Jewish state and their support for an armed struggle against the Israeli occupation. Tibi and Bishara are certainly no sweet-smelling flowers; they are non-Zionist Arabs who, deep down, would naturally be quite happy if the State of Israel did not exist. But they are citizens of this state and wish to take part in the parliamentary decisions that affect its character. They are modern politicians (in no small part, products of Israeli political culture) and they are fighting proudly for their positions. They have personal weaknesses (the wars of the Jews are child's play compared to the rivalries between the Arab MKs) and they have been accused by some of the Arab public of placing their own personal interests above public needs, but they are nevertheless among the 120 elected MKs of the outgoing Knesset. Few members of that group share Tibi's eloquence, rhetorical savvy and sharpness of mind, and fewer still can compete with Bishara's articulateness, erudition and intellectual abilities.

Tibi and Bishara are authentic representatives of the contemporary Israeli Arab. To disqualify them from membership in the Knesset is to keep 20 percent of the state's citizens from taking an active part in the shaping of the nation's life and character. No one in the Arab sector accepts the Jewishness of the state. There isn't a single Arab citizen who is a Zionist. Israeli Arabs are citizens of this state due to the arbitrariness of fate, which left them within its borders after the War of Independence. They didn't come to the state; the state came to them, if not upon them. The feelings that were hidden in the first 20 years of the state's existence surfaced after that: From a submissive population reluctantly groveling before the officers of the civil administration and the Mapai political bosses, the Arab public and its leaders have become a solid, loud and organized national minority that is demanding its rights. This is another consequence of the Six-Day War.

Israeli Arabs will continue to perturb the Jewish majority, because they are aware of the built-in conflict between Israel's definition as a Jewish state and its claim to be a democratic state. Using those democratic tools that the state gives all of its citizens, the Arab minority is fighting not only for its right to full equality, but to try to have an impact on the components of the state's identity and national symbols. As this struggle continues to heat up, the Jewish majority will have to contend with positions and demands it will find hard to swallow, positions that are inherently opposed to the Zionist conception of the state.

In deciding this week to ostracize Tibi and Bishara from the political arena, based on the argument that they do not accept the Jewishness of the state, the right-wing representatives on the CEC signaled to the Arab public at large what kind of future they can expect in the Jewish state: to be thrown off the playing field where public affairs are conducted in accordance with the democratic rules of the game.

4. The right's fulminating heroes

The second explanation given for the disqualifications were the statements attributed to Tibi and Bishara (and other Balad leaders) ostensibly supporting the use of force in the struggle against the Israeli occupier. Most notorious was Azmi Bishara's speech in Syria, given in the presence of Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, in which he called for wider resistance to the occupation. To (Jewish) Israeli ears, things that Tibi and Bishara have said on several occasions over the past two years sound like expressions of solidarity with the enemy, and thus out of bounds. Especially when they are abroad (or over the Green Line) and speaking to an Arab audience, the two sometimes get carried away in a way that (Jewish) Israeli citizens finds hard to accept. That being the case, this pretext for their disqualification is still not convincing from either from a political or legal standpoint, nor is it politically wise.

The Shin Bet security forces prepared a special report on Bishara's public statements and presented it to the members of the CEC. Bishara is an obvious target for Shin Bet surveillance, but he has never been found to have committed any action that violates the law. He is known to have ties with Syrian officials, but there is no evidence that he has ever exploited his status to pass classified information to Damascus. The transcripts that the Shin Bet provided to the CEC are not compelling enough from a formal legal standpoint, because they are not documented: They are not backed up by tape recordings and have also been filtered through an informant's report and by translation from Arabic to Hebrew. These are not insignificant details, as Bishara pointed out when he addressed the committee. When he referred to "the occupied territories" (meaning the West Bank and Gaza), the Shin Bet translator rendered his words as "the occupied land" (implying Israel within the 1948 borders).

When he told students at Neveh Shalom that Jewish Israelis have an advantage over the Arabs because they acquired the habits of discipline in the army, the Shin Bet translation made it sound as if he'd called for the establishment of a Palestinian army inside Israel. When he used the word "resistance" in his speech in Syria, it was translated as "armed struggle." One can choose not to believe Bishara and to say that his explanations this week were meant to distort the original meaning of his statements, but to prove this, the Shin Bet would have to provide recordings of the original statements. In their absence, the evidence is not sufficient from a legal point of view. Moreover, the offense attributed to him because of his statements in Syria is being applied retroactively (on the basis of Clause 7a, which was added to Amendment 9 of the Basic Law: The Knesset only last year and introduced several months after Bishara's June 2001 visit to Syria).

This tendency is even more blatant when it comes to Ahmed Tibi. The quotes attributed to him are mostly innocuous and lack the foundation of consistency necessary to disqualify a candidate.

The justifications for the disqualifications are also unconvincing from a political standpoint - first, because of the sinking suspicion that the whole process was basically intended to help the right weaken the left. More specifically, the ideological arguments of Bishara and Tibi about their right to express their opposition to the occupation (Bishara also spoke of opposition to the occupation of southern Lebanon) and to the Zionist dimension of the state's existence are legitimate arguments, even if they are not pleasing to Jewish ears. Furthermore, the moment that Israel declares itself a democratic state, it is thereby proclaiming itself to be a state of all its citizens. Which state does the right think Bishara and Tibi belong to?

The right's position in the CEC also does not withstand the test of political pragmatism: It's only been two years since the riots in the Arab sector made it painfully clear that it is in the interest of the State of Israel as a whole, Arabs and Jews together, to maintain the framework that enables them to live alongside one another. The trick to managing national affairs is to have foresight and avoid moves that would abruptly undermine stability. Whoever seeks to banish Israeli Arabs from the core of the Israeli experience is exposing the state to a heretofore-unseen degree of internal strife. The fulminating heroes of the right might enjoy flexing their muscles, but they've also shown that they weren't standing in line on the day that God handed out good sense.