The Court's Supreme Test

If the panel of 11 Supreme Court justices upholds the decision to disqualify two Arab candidates and Balad, and thus effectively expel them from the Knesset, it will find it very difficult afterward to stop the slide down the slippery slope of the undermining of Israel's already fragile democracy and it will not be able to prevent the coming stages, which will be even more nightmarish.

Even if there is no calculated plan behind the latest measures taken by the state, the removal from the Knesset of MK Ahmed Tibi (Ta'al: Arab Movement for Renewal), MK Azmi Bishara and Bishara's Balad party (as decided last week by the Central Elections Committee, pending the decision of the Supreme Court), the closure of the organ of the Islamic Movement and the threat to outlaw the movement - all this happening with the span of a few weeks - constitute a threat against the country's Palestinian citizens and, in equal measure, the image of the regime.

What has been done cannot be undone: after the campaign of collective suspicions that was organized from above and the campaign of popular humiliation that sprang up from below - try to rent an apartment for an Arab student - and after the Central Elections Committee voted to expel Bishara, Balad and Tibi from the Knesset on the basis of reports submitted by the Shin Bet security service, the damage that has already been done to the relations between the two peoples in the country is grave and long-term.

This week it may yet be possible to reduce it somewhat: a panel of 11 Supreme Court justices will convene on Tuesday to decide whether to uphold or overturn the decisions of the CEC. This will be a test for the Supreme Court whose importance cannot be overestimated. If the court upholds the decision to disqualify the two candidates and the party and thus effectively expel them from the Knesset, it will find it very difficult afterward to stop the slide down the slippery slope of the undermining of Israel's already fragile democracy and it will not be able to prevent the coming stages, which will be even more nightmarish. The justices will never be able to claim again that they stood in the breach.

If the highest court in the land does not prevent this expulsion from the parliament, it will also not be able to prevent a mass expulsion from the country when the time comes. Responsibility for tearing the fabric of Israeli democracy will fall squarely on their shoulders, no less than on the shoulders of the executive branch. In everlasting shame it will be remembered that the committee advised and the court consented.

In any event, the role played by the Supreme Court in preserving the state's judicial and moral image, especially in the past two years, has already cast a heavy shadow over it. Validating almost every action of the military in the territories and rejecting almost every petition filed by human rights organizations and other groups, the high institution shares in the responsibility for the most serious and cruel actions perpetrated by Israel in the territories. Almost the entire world is talking about war crimes, but Supreme Court President Aharon Barak and his colleagues give the army's actions the kosher seal, or are silent. When the High Court of Justice rejected petitions on the targeted assassinations carried out by Israel, citing the excuse that the court does not intervene on matters of combat, it opened the door to the daily liquidations we are now witnessing. You will never hear Ariel Sharon complaining (as Yitzhak Rabin did) that he would prefer a country without the High Court of Justice and without B'Tselem, the human rights organization; in the territories, he already has that situation, at least without the High Court.

But there is a limit to this breach of duty by the Supreme Court, and that limit is called the Green Line. Within the 1967 Green Line, the court continued to justify, in general, its reputation as the beacon of justice. The question of the possible expulsion from the Knesset of Bishara and Tibi will show whether that limit has also been breached.

Israel is now hurtling backward to its first years, but for some reason only to the dark side of that period. The economic growth data are the worst since 1953, and the Arab political parties find themselves being outlawed, as in the 1960s. Still, there is a big difference between the outlawing of the Al-Ard movement in 1965 and the threat to do the same to Balad, Bishara and Tibi in 2003. Back then, most of the country's Arab citizens were still in a daze from the events of 1948 - cowed and humiliated, they voted for Mapai, the forerunner of the Labor Party.

Now a new generation has emerged: articulate, self-confident, educated, tenacious and nationalist. Tibi and Bishara are the authentic representatives of the new generation. Their removal from the Knesset is tantamount to removing their voice.

True, they both espouse extreme views; their voters are exactly the same. No, they are not operating against the state. They are working against the cruel occupation of their brethren with the sharpest means at their disposal, and it's good that they have such means at their disposal. If either or both of them acted in violation of the law, that is not for the CEC to decide. Perhaps Bishara overdid his visits to Damascus, maybe Tibi shouldn't have been an adviser to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat. But both of them expressed authentic attitudes among their constituencies with skill and fervor that are the true threat to the CEC and the Israeli public.

There is no great difference between the views and actions of MKs Talab a-Sana (United Arab List) and Muhammad Kanan (Arab National Party) and those of Tibi and Bishara. Bishara was not the only one who visited Damascus and Tibi was not alone in proffering advice to Arafat. But Tibi and Bishara were able to convey their views to all Israelis, who thereby felt threatened. That is no reason to remove them from the parliament; it is a reason to try to cope with what they have to say. This is not a case of democracy defending itself; indeed, their removal will weaken Israeli democracy. In any event, the voices of Tibi and Bishara can no longer be stifled, even if they are grating to the majority of Israel's Jewish majority. The only question is where their voices will echo - in the parliament of the Jewish state or in dark alleys, where nefarious schemes are hatched.