In secret, and virtually without any public debate, the Knesset gave final approval on Tuesday to an amendment to the Basic Law on the Knesset. This amendment increases the chances that candidates for the Knesset or entire tickets will be disqualified, and thereby opens the door even wider to political persecution and gagging.
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Article 7a of the Basic Law allows candidates or tickets to be disqualified if, through either their stated aims or their actions, they reject Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state, incite to racism or support armed struggle against Israel by an enemy country or a terrorist organization.
This controversial article was added to the Basic Law in line with Israel’s view of itself as a “democracy on the defensive,” which must defend itself against those seeking to destroy it by using whatever means a democratic system of government allows. But when the Central Elections Committee uses this article to disqualify candidates, its decisions require approval by the Supreme Court.
The justices – as well as the attorney general, who is party to the process – have always adhered to an approach that seeks to preserve as broad a right as possible to run for office and be elected. Therefore, they have repeatedly overturned Central Elections Committee decisions to disqualify candidates. The attorney general’s position has always been that even if a candidate made unbecoming statements, the evidence had not attained the critical mass necessary to turn these statements into acts that justified disqualification.
The amendment is ostensibly meant to solve this evidentiary problem: It adds two words to the existing law specifying that “a person’s actions” now also include his statements. Yet this amendment must be judged against the background of the poisonous political atmosphere in the Knesset and the undemocratic efforts by some right-wing parties to exclude representatives of the Arab community from the legislature.
These parties worked to enact a law that allows a sitting MK to be ousted, and they are now trying to use it to expel MK Basel Ghattas (Joint List). Moreover, they are doing so without awaiting the outcome of the criminal proceedings against Ghattas – since if those were to end in his conviction and a judicial determination that his acts entailed moral turpitude, the convicted MK would by law lose his seat in any case.
Similarly, the right-wing parliamentary majority is now seeking to prevent anyone not to its liking from running for Knesset to begin with. The amendment is intended to have a chilling effect on Arab politicians and public figures, as well as on Jews who are outside the mainstream, by making them fear to speak freely lest this damage their chances of being elected in the future.
The Central Elections Committee, aside from the Supreme Court justice who heads it, is a political body that cannot be relied on to make appropriate decisions. Giving it additional tools with which to disqualify candidates will only help it continue to undermine the fundamental principles of representative democracy.