Barring Arab parties is wrong

The decision of Israel’s Central Elections Committee to bar two Arab parties– United Arab List-Ta’al and Balad– from competing in next month’s Knesset elections was profoundly wrongheaded, not least because of the propaganda ammunition it provides to Israel’s enemies at a critical time.

But while Israel’s friends on the democratic Left should condemn this decision and support the effort to overturn it, we shouldn’t hesitate to make a few points which the Israel bashers ignore:

–The only political party ever prevented from running in a Knesset election was an extreme-right Jewish party, Meir Kahane’s Kach. And that ban was on the basis of Kach being undemocratic and racist against Arabs.

–The CEC did not vote to bar a predominantly Arab party, Hadash (a coalition which includes the Israeli Community party), despite its fierce criticism of the military operation in Gaza.

–The Labor party’s vote in the CEC to bar UAL and Balad from the elections was condemned by a number of Labor Knesset members– including my favorite MK, Shelly Yachimovich.

–The former leader of Balad, Azmi Bishara, is living in exile in Syria. He has been accused of passing information to Hezbollah during the 2006 war in Lebanon, which he denies. Balad has never dissociated itself from Bishara. UAL leader Ahmed Tibi has called for continuing the struggle against Israel “until all of the Palestinian land is freed.” However, as some of our commenters would be quick to point out, Jewish Knesset members on the other extreme have said some outrageous things about Arabs, and no one is proposing that their parties be barred from running. One of the challenges of democracy is tolerating the disgusting political behavior of some, while keeping faith that the good sense of the majority will prevail.

Finally, and perhaps most important, the decision of the CEC is unlikely to stand. Even the members who voted to bar the parties conceded that Israel’s Supreme Court is almost certain to overturn the ban before to election. In fact in 2003 the Court reversed a CEC decision to bar Balad’s participation in elections.

Israel should not give its enemies an opening to question its democratic credentials– even while many of those same enemies proclaim their solidarity with the profoundly undemocratic and fascistic Hamas.