Political Players Deciding Who's in the Game

Dr. Alex Epstein, research associate at the Shalem Center and a lecturer in sociology and political science at the Open University, has harsh things to say about the decision to disqualify Arab MKs from the upcoming elections.

Dr. Alex Epstein, research associate at the Shalem Center and a lecturer in sociology and political science at the Open University, has harsh things to say about the decision to disqualify Arab MKs from the upcoming elections.

Epstein immigrated to Israel from the CIS 12 years ago. Considering the matrix of stereotypes behind the right-wing political outlook of many immigrants, and given his association with the conservative Shalem Center, he should be defending the decision. But, surprisingly, he is not.

"This isn't a democracy defending itself; it's an electoral contest, and the decision was utterly political," Epstein says, describing the voting at the Central Elections Committee to approve the candidacy of Baruch Marzel and disqualify that of MKs Ahmed Tibi and Azmi Bishara, along with the Balad list.

"A group of politicians presided over by a lone judge meets to decide who may and may not run for office," Epstein says. "It's like having guys who represent chain stores getting together to debate who should be permitted to compete with whom in a given market, and deciding to disqualify some particular chain on the grounds that its advertising is too aggressive or that it's exploiting its Chinese workers.

"I assume that Avigdor Lieberman and Baruch Marzel compete for the same pool of votes, and Lieberman has to decide whether or not to disqualify Marzel. The entire process is conducted in the context of a given political configuration, with decisions sometimes taken by a margin of one vote, without broad agreement, as to who may and may not run. So a few players in the political arena are deciding who will compete with them and who won't. It's a very odd process - never mind improper."

Epstein openly regrets the disqualification of Azmi Bishara, of all people, whom he describes as "an outstanding intellectual." Bishara's books on the history of Zionism and the formation of the collective Israeli identity make an important contribution to the dialogue between the communities here, says Epstein.

In the last few days, it was hard to find experts, or anyone whose work involves Israeli democracy, voicing absolute support for the disqualification, or the manner in which it was decided. When asked for an opinion, most people were somewhere on the fair vs. smart continuum, meaning that even if it was a fair decision, to whatever degree, it still wasn't smart.

Epstein's opinion is that the process itself is flawed. He views the low minimum threshold of ballots that a political party in Israel must receive in order to enter the Knesset - the lowest threshold of any democratic country that has adopted the system - as a serious deficiency in the nation's political system. He did a survey and found that the threshold in Russia and Germany is 5 percent; in Sweden, 4 percent; and in Poland, 7 percent - but in Israel, it's 1.5 percent.

"This situation permits radical elements to enter Israel's legislature when only a tiny minority votes for them - a situation that doesn't exist in other countries, where the threshold is higher or a majority system is used," says Epstein. "A higher threshold would force us to cope with ideological groups, however radical, that at least represented a larger majority of the constituency. Our system raises the question of whether the majority really has the right to defend itself in the reality of a proportional representation system with such a low threshold."

The answer, in his view, is complicated. By way of illustration, he raises the case of the National Socialist Party in Germany, which first ran in 1929 and was the second largest party in the race. "If it had been rejected back then, we would all have been better off," he says.

He thinks the solution is to be found in changing the apparatus of disqualification. Because, in his view, the judicial system in Israel is too strong as it is, he would prefer to see the power to disqualify transferred to a panel of experts, mainly political scientists and sociologists. Politicians would lose the privilege, but it would not end up with the judiciary.

Shunning them in the Knesset

"Fair, but not smart," sums up Dr. Dan Schueftan, a Middle East expert and senior associate at the National Security Studies Center, Haifa University. Over the last five years, Schueftan has collected and studied speeches made by Arab members of Knesset, and he minces no words: "They had it coming. Based on any relevant criteria, it's impossible to defend their case. But there's a difference between what's justifiable and what's smart. I prefer that the struggle with Arab MKs be conducted with public means, not judicial ones, because even at that, we've lost all sense of proportion. The state is run by Justice Aharon Barak, and although his values are close to my own, it's not an appropriate situation in my view."

Schueftan argues that his systematic monitoring of the pronouncements of Arab MKs, especially those of Bishara, leave no room for doubt that MK Bishara identifies with enemies of Israel. "In my view, it's not important how the layman interprets these statements, but how they are perceived by the public to whom he is talking. He, like the constituency he is addressing, understands very well that code words like the `resistance activities' he talks about have a very specific and well-defined meaning... From texts of his I've analyzed, it's clear he's misleading people, but only the Jews are misled; the Arabs know all the codes."

Still, although by his line of reasoning the disqualification is justified, Schueftan argues that caution is warranted. He would prefer to see Arab MKs ostracized politically - to see, for instance, all the MKs who disagree with them leave the Knesset when Arab MKs rise to speak from the podium.

"Not because they're Arabs," he emphasizes, "but because of the positions they take. I would say the same thing if Matzpen or some other such party were to enter the Knesset. Why was it legitimate to say `I will not sit with [the late Meir] Kahane,' but it's not legitimate to say `I won't sit with these Arab MKs?'"

One major problem created in recent days, as Schueftan sees things, is the possibility that only Bishara will be disqualified in the end, and Marzel not. "The worst case scenario is that only the Arabs will be barred, and Marzel will be made legitimate. That would make it look as though all paths are being barred to the Arabs by legal means," he says. "One has to be cautious about what message one is sending. If Bishara and Marzel are both disqualified, and the Arabs still say that they are going to boycott the elections - it would really be demagoguery. But if only the Arabs are disqualified, even Arabs who aren't mere demagogues can argue that it's a witch hunt. I definitely distinguish between the demagogic exploitation of a decision and an argument that, even if I don't agree with it, isn't on the face of it untenable."

But what has lately been termed the Israeli Arab intifada, in the wake of the disqualification, doesn't frighten Schueftan. "We're on this track in any case. The only question is what will spur the breakthrough - the disqualification, or the decision of the Or Commission [investigating the events of October 2000]. It doesn't much matter what we do; that's the trap."

At the other end of the ethnic democracy in Israel, at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, Dr. Adel Manaa is keeping a worried eye on what's been happening lately. "This is not a democracy defending itself; it's a democracy committing suicide," he asserts. "The disqualification process is added on to other disturbing signs in Israeli politics over the last few years. Of most concern is the disappearance of shame."

But Manaa fears that there is more to the most recent case than simply the loss of shame; there's real malicious intent, he warns. "There are those in the country who would like to create an apocalyptic war, with the Jews on one side and the Arabs on the other. To use the analogy of the provocations made by Sharon and Mofaz in the territories in order to evoke suicide attacks, on the assumption that those things serve the right wing, maybe the same approach is being adopted inside Israel. It seems to me someone has decided he can achieve two objectives at once by delegitimizing Israeli Arabs: Whether more people would boycott the elections or whether the Arab response would be a resort to confrontation, the right would profit."

Manaa, a Balad supporter, distinguishes between the impact on the Arab public of disqualifying MK Tibi, MK Bishara, or the entire Balad party. "Disqualifying Tibi would evoke less of a response among the Arab public because of his relatively lesser ideological weight; disqualifying Balad means disqualifying an ideological and political stream with which many people identify, and would have more severe consequences than the disqualification of an individual."

Exiting the parliamentary game

He doesn't always agree with the substance of what Bishara says or his fiery manner, but he argues that all of it is protected by the right to freedom of speech.

The claim about democracy defending itself strikes Manaa in this context as completely untenable. "It's precisely the wrong notion of democratic self-defense," he says. "In a society in which the Arabs are 17 percent of the population, neither Tibi nor Bishara endangers Israeli democracy. The most they can do is challenge the boundaries of the consensus and the Zionist discourse in Israel. Arabs have no chance of endangering Israeli democracy - not to mention that they express their faith in it by the very fact of taking part in the parliamentary game."

Manaa thinks that the danger to Israeli democracy arises from a completely different source. He thinks that if the Supreme Court does not reverse the decisions, two non-democratic processes will ensue: Participation by the Arab public in the elections will decrease, and the character of its representation will change.

"They'll always find people who are glad to be MKs, but the quality will go down. The main damage will be to the parties and the politically-active circles. A loss of faith in the democratic parliamentary game will heighten the alienation among the younger generation, which may be propelled into radical activism. The young people will tell themselves that the Jews have to be shown that there's a price to pay for playing unfairly, and that the Jews should pay, too. Sometimes, a small minority is what moves the wheels of history."

Manaa disagrees with the view that periods of emergency can sometimes justify damage to democracy, as the Israeli left claimed when Ehud Barak outflanked democratic procedures in pursuing the peace process.

"That may be so when the damage doesn't leave an open wound," he argues. "But the disqualification is added now to attacks from all quarters on the Arabs - economically, socially, politically - and is finally touching on the only equal right they have left, the right to vote and be elected. It's not something that can be turned on and off like a faucet; it will provoke the onset of a dynamic that's only the beginning of a downward spiral."

Here Manaa quotes from a book by Prof. David Kretchmer (published in English) on the legal status of Israeli Arabs. In an update to the book, about two years ago, Kretchmer wrote that during the 1980s and 1990s, Israeli democracy opened up, and that the disqualification of the Al-Ard list as a "nationalist Arab party" back in the 1965 elections was already history.

"Now, everything has changed," says Manaa, with a sad smile.