The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Israeli electoral committee bans Arab candidates, allows extreme right to run

Israeli demonstrators carry placards that read in Hebrew, “No to putting racism in the ballot box,” during a protest March 2 in Jerusalem against right-wing followers of Rabbi Meir Kahane.
Israeli demonstrators carry placards that read in Hebrew, “No to putting racism in the ballot box,” during a protest March 2 in Jerusalem against right-wing followers of Rabbi Meir Kahane. (Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — A decision by Israel’s electoral committee to ban two Arab parties and a candidate from a third Arab-led slate from running in elections, while allowing a far-right-wing candidate despite recommendations from the attorney general to ban him, was sharply criticized Thursday by leaders of Israel’s Arab community.

The ruling was called unreasonable and racist, and it sparked fears among Israeli Arabs that the country’s 1.8 million Arab citizens could be further politically marginalized ahead of April 9 parliamentary elections.

The decision to ban the parties, which are running on a united ticket, and candidate, Ofer Cassif, followed petitions submitted by three right-wing factions, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party. 

The two parties and Cassif now plan to appeal to the Supreme Court next week, and a panel of nine judges will make a final ruling on whether they can run in elections for the parliament, called the Knesset.

In a hearing Wednesday of the Central Elections Committee, it was argued that the two parties, Balad and the United Arab List, as well as Cassif — a politics professor and the only Jewish candidate for the Arab-majority Hadash party — had either expressed views supporting terror or rejected Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. 

“Those who support terrorism will not be in the Israeli Knesset!” Netanyahu said in a statement.

Parties and individuals can be disqualified if they reject Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, incite racism, or express support for an enemy state or for terrorist organizations.  

Hanin Zoabi, an outgoing parliamentarian for Balad, faced such petitions in the past for expressing support for Hamas, the militant Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip, and for calling Israeli soldiers murderers. 

But Adalah, a legal center advocating for Arab minority rights in Israel, said the bans were politically motivated, “reflecting the McCarthyist persecution of those whose views are not acceptable to Israel’s political right.” 

Hassan Jabareen, the group’s general director, said that there have long been attempts to disqualify Arab candidates but that this was the first time a Jewish candidate was banned for holding left-wing views. He said this was due to a deal struck recently between Netanyahu and the far-right Otzma Yehudit party and because of a nationalistic nation-state law — which declared Israel a national homeland for Jews and prioritized Jewish-only communities — passed last year.

[Contentious nation-state law declaring Israel the Jewish homeland approved by lawmakers]

Arab citizens comprise roughly 20 percent of Israel’s population. Since the country was founded in 1948, Arabs have been encouraged to run for political office, and in the last election an amalgamation of four Arab-led parties known as the Joint List became the third-largest faction in the Knesset.

[Israel’s Arab political parties have united for the first time]

But that arrangement broke down, leading to two separate slates. The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (Hadash) joined with the Arab Movement for Renewal (Ta’al), and the National Democratic Assembly (Balad) joined with the United Arab List (Ra’am). Recent polls project Hadash-Ta’al to win nine seats in the 120-seat parliament and Balad-Ra’am around five. 

The Central Elections Committee decision to ban Balad-Ra’am and Cassif came hours after it rejected a petition submitted by left-wing parties and a recommendation by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to stop Otzma Yehudit leader Michael Ben Ari from running. 

Translated as “Jewish Power,” Otzma Yehudit includes followers of the extremist U.S.-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose original party, Kach, was outlawed in Israel and is designated as a terrorist organization in the United States. 

To widespread criticism Netanyahu last month reached a deal with the group, paving the way for it to gain at least one seat in the Knesset.

[American Israel lobby condemns Netanyahu deal with far-right party]

Hadash party leader Ayman Odeh said it was ironic that “Kahanists, who believe Israel should be only for the Jews and that the Arab population should be forcibly transferred, are now seen as legitimate, while those who advocate for peace are not allowed to run for the Knesset.”

While the case for Balad-Ra’am and Cassif will be heard next week by the Supreme Court, some Arab politicians are worried that the electoral committee’s decision will further sideline Arab citizens and discourage them from going to the polls. 

Balad candidate Heba Yazbak said that Arab voters already felt marginalized and that if the ban on her party is not reversed, calls to boycott from within her community would be magnified.

“What is happening in Israel today is very dangerous,” she said. “And we are worried that the coming government will make us feel even more excluded from this country.” 

Morris reported from Britain.

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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