(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The Knesset Central Elections Committee on Monday disqualified Arab parties Balad and United Arab List (UAL) from running in February's Knesset elections.
The vote capped a stormy day that ended with an almost violent conflict between Balad chairman Jamal Zahalka and Kadima MK David Tal.
"You are an absolute nothing!" Zahalka screamed at Tal shortly after UAL chairman Ahmed Tibi and Zahalka had announced they would not remain in the room for what Tibi termed "racist voting by such a racist collection of people."
Tal retorted that Zahalka was an unemployed bum and that he should "Go back to Syria."
"You are rude! After eight years, he still supports [Hamas]."
Three petitions to disqualify Balad from running were filed with the Elections Committee last week by the Ichud Leumi (National Union) and Israel Beitenu parties and Itay Furman, formerly of Shinui.
The petitions claimed that Balad's political platform aimed to undermine Israel's existence as a Jewish, democratic state and that the party was supporting armed struggle against Israel. Israel Beiteinu filed a petition against UAL for the same reasons.
Zahalka said that the procedure in the Elections Committee was an attempt to demonize Balad.
"Israeli democracy, not Balad, is being put to the test today," he said. "We are not Zionists and we will never be, under any circumstances," Zahalka said.
"Balad is a democratic and progressive party and we believe in the basic principle of equality for all people. We would never accept, politically or emotionally, claims that someone else is superior to us just because we're Arabs," Zahalka said. "All we demand is democracy! What are you afraid of when we ask for equality? We are the sons of this country, we were born here and we are willing to treat you with equality, so why don't you? We offer to live together. [Israel Beitenu chairman Avigdor] Lieberman offers to die together."
"We say, any vote given to Kadima is a bullet in the chest of a Palestinian child in Gaza," Tibi told the committee prior to the vote. "Israel's problem is not Balad, not UAL, but the Kadima Party and [Defense Minister and Labor chairman Ehud] Barak. These people started a war as an election campaign. The State of Israel is democratic for Jews and Jewish for its Arab citizens. We never said that we don't recognize the State of Israel. We are part of it, but we will never accept Zionism, which is an ideology that aspires to banish us from our homes."
Before Tibi's harsh words, UAL had not been expected to be disqualified from running. Despite the fact that there had been no plan to bar the party, Tibi's comments managed to upset Labor Secretary-General Eitan Cabel.
Cabel voted to bar Balad, saying that although he knew the High Court of Justice would reverse the committee's decision, Zahalka had offended him and the Israeli public.
Twenty-six of the committee's members - all MKs except for former deputy president of the Supreme Court Justice Eliezer Rivlin, who heads the Central Elections Committee and abstained - voted to disqualify Balad.
Three committee members voted against disqualifying the party, including representatives of Meretz and Meimad. A total of 21 members voted to disqualify UAL, seven voted against (Labor and Meretz representatives) and two abstained.
In 2003, the committee approved a similar request to disqualify Balad from Knesset elections, a decision that the High Court of Justice later reversed.
Rivlin quoted the High Court's 2003 ruling, saying the decision had mandated that there be substantial evidence that a given party supported an enemy's armed fight against Israel in order to disqualify that party from running for the Knesset, not just random and sporadic hostile sentiments expressed by its members.
Attorney Dana Briskman, speaking on behalf of Attorney-General Menahem Mazuz, told the committee prior to the vote that the attorney-general had not found sufficient evidence to disqualify Balad or UAL.
Lieberman, whose party led the move to have these Arab parties disqualified from the elections, responded to the committee's decision by saying, "The next step is to declare Balad illegal because it's a terror organization that seeks to hurt Israel."
Attorney Yoav Manni, who represented Israel Beitenu in the discussion, said that former Balad head Azmi Bishara, who fled the country under suspicion of spying for Hizbullah during the Second Lebanon War, was still consulted regularly by current party members.
Tibi said he would appeal the committee's decision to the High Court of Justice, which is expected to reverse the decision by Friday. Zahalka predicted that this decision would lead to a deeper crisis between the country's Jewish and Arab citizens.
Later Monday, the Elections Committee rejected petitions that sought to disqualify haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism from the Knesset elections on the grounds that they ran separate school systems that operated in an undemocratic way and would undermine democracy in the country.