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The End Of Israeli Democracy?

More than a few bloggers have jumped on the news that the Israeli Knesset's Central Elections Committee voted overwhelmingly to ban Arab parties from running in the upcoming parliamentary elections, with some of these bloggers using the vote to question Israel's status as a democracy.

Allegations of racism surrounding the vote demonstrate a lack of knowledge about Israeli history and society. This is not the first time that Israel has banned an extremist political party. In 1988, the Central Election Commission banned Rabbi Meir Kahane's Kach party for its racist and undemocratic platform. (Kahane, the founder of the quasi-terrorist Jewish Defense League, supported a Jewish state devoid of Arabs -- by force if necessary -- based on biblical law, and encompassing parts of modern day Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon). As extreme as Kahane's views were, however, they're not what got him banned. It was inciting his followers to perpetrate violence against Israel's Arabs that convinced the Israeli government to outlaw his party. 

Israel's Arab parties--two of which have are represented in the Knesset--face banning for the same reasons. Azmi Bishara, leader of Balad, fled to Syria after the Second Lebanon War of 2006 in the face of potential arrest for treason and espionage. Even though Bishara has expressed support for Hezbollah (at the funeral of Hafez al-Assad no less) and today lives in a country still technically at war with Israel, Balad has refused to disassociate itself its disgraced leader. The case for banning the second Arab party, the United Arab List, is weaker. UAL is led by Ahmed Tibi, who is less incendiary than Bishara, though he did urge Palestinians to continue their struggle against Israel "until all of the Palestinian land is freed" at a 2007 rally. And despite a ban on Israeli Knesset members visiting "enemy states," he has visited Lebanon without seeking the proper permit from Israeli authorities.

The standards for operating a legal political party in Israel are hardly unreasonable. The four offenses that could lead to possible banning are:

  • Any rejection (in the party's goals or activities) of the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state.
  • Any incitement to racism.
  • Any support of the armed struggle of an enemy state or terrorist organization against the State of Israel
  • Any hint of a cover for illegal activity.

The case for banning these two Arab parties may not be as strong as it was for the outlawing of the Kahane movement, but this decision did not just come out of nowhere. In the United States, if the Ku Klux Klan were to form a political party, advocating the dissolution of the American government and inciting violence from within and without, it would be banned, and rightly so. 

One shouldn't confuse the banning of particular parties with Arab enfranchisement, as The American Prospect's A. Serwer does. He calls Israel's decision "indefensible" and dregs up a quote from Frederick Douglas on the right of women to vote. But the decision to ban these two particular Arab political parties has no effect on the ability of individual Arabs to vote. Arabs can still vote and have the same exact voting rights as Israel's Jewish citizens. They simply can't vote for parties that seek the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state, just as Jews cannot vote for the late Kahane's anti-Arab party. Serwer writes:

The motion was put forth by two ultranationalist parties who are "accusing the country's Arab parties of incitement, supporting terrorist groups and refusing to recognize Israel's right to exist." I'm not sure how much validity there is to the charges, but in the case of the first two individuals, not entire ethnicities, should be held accountable, and the third sounds like an attack on free speech.

"Entire ethnicities" are not being punished, and Israel is not "banning Arabs from elections," as Serwer's post is deceptively titled. Arabs can vote for, and be members of, any political party they like that doesn't violate any of the four conditions listed above. A moderate Arab political party respecting those terms would not ritually face the prospect of banning orders.

That said, I remain skeptical of this move. Without a political outlet, there's every reason to believe that Israel's Arabs--by and large opposed to the fundamental notion of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state--will turn towards violence as a means of expressing discontent. The statement from the far-left Meretz party hints at this threat: "Do Barak and Livni really prefer blocking Israel's Arabs' right to parliamentary activity and driving them to street demonstrations?" But as impulsive and overreactive as the decision was, and as destructive as the consequences may be, let's at least recognize that a serious problem exists with the posture of Israel's Arabs towards the state in which they live, and that the decision to ban these parties does not mean that Israel is not a democracy. Indeed, it's highly unlikely that the Knesset's decision will even be upheld by the Israeli Supreme Court (the Court has overturned such bans on Arab parties in the past), and so Balad and UAL will probably be on the ballot after all. Funny how democracy works. 

--James Kirchick