Where to draw the line?

The Supreme Court overturned the decision to invalidate Haneen Zoabi's candidacy. What happened?

Zoabi arrives at court 370 (photo credit: Reuters/Ammar Awad)
Zoabi arrives at court 370
(photo credit: Reuters/Ammar Awad)
Israel, says Balad MK Haneen Zoabi, is “either a democracy or it is not. We never claimed as Palestinians in Israel that Israel has been a democracy since its establishment.
We think [that] as long as [Israel] maintains policies as a Jewish state, it cannot be a democracy. This is not just a matter of policies or government, it is a matter of basic perception of the state [and of] basic ideology.”
Zoabi, who spoke with The Jerusalem Post by phone between campaign appearances, is fresh off a win in the Supreme Court, where a decision by the Knesset Central Elections Committee to invalidate her candidacy and her bid for a second term was overturned.
A controversial and polarizing figure, Zoabi has managed to stay in the limelight consistently throughout her first four years as a lawmaker – an impressive achievement for a freshman MK.
Known worldwide both for her participation in the 2010 Gaza flotilla, which sought to break the IDF blockade on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, and her frequent appearances on college campuses to mark Israel Apartheid Week, Zoabi has been dubbed “Iran’s representative in the Knesset” by conservative pundits and her numerous critics.
Zoabi, however, says she is merely fighting for equal rights for Israeli Arabs.
“I don’t understand democracy other than as a state for all its citizens, and to guarantee equality and human rights,” she says. There are “more than 38 laws that legally discriminate against Palestinians,” she says, and “more than 33 percent [of Israelis] prefer Jewish values to democratic values. When people like me and my party... come and concentrate on democracy, they are perceived as a threat and we are subjected to racism. We want to be a threat to that racism.”
Moreover, she says, there is more to her than the Palestinian issue or the fight over Israel as a Jewish state. She notes that she is an advocate for Ethiopian and women’s rights, but claims that “because of the media distortion of my attitudes” and due to “demonization” and “incitement” against her, other issues she is involved with are obscured.
“In our daily parliamentarian performance, we address these daily issues, such as land, housing, healthcare, health rights, educational rights, so at the end you must face also the daily life of the people,” she says.
HOWEVER, MOST of the Knesset seems to disagree with her assessment.
Although Knesset bans of her faction, which Balad MK Jamal Zahalka leads, were overturned in both 2003 and 2009, such efforts were renewed in 2012. The most recent campaign, led by Likud MKs Ophir Akunis and Danny Danon, targeted Zoabi rather than her party as a whole, due to her participation in the 2010 flotilla.
Her presence on the Mavi Marmara is troubling, say Akunis and Danon, especially in light of a video that shows her standing among passengers armed with metal clubs – presumably, her critics claim, the same ones used in the attempted lynching of IDF servicemen that led to the shooting deaths of several Turkish activists.
By attempting to break the blockade, however, Zoabi “crossed the line completely,” claims Danon. “Not only is she inciting against Israel, but she also takes action against Israel.”
The IHH, the Turkish organization that organized the aid flotilla, has longstanding ties with the leadership of Hamas, and at the time of the flotilla incident had pictures of the group’s leader Fehmi Bülent Yildirim with top Hamas officials.
Several weeks before the ships set sail for Gaza, several leaders of movements allied with the IHH in organizing the flotilla told the Five Towns Jewish Times newspaper in New York that Palestinian terrorism was justified.
“According to international law, people who are occupied have the right to resist and even [use] violent resistance,” said Dror Feiler, a flotilla organizer and Israeli expatriate living in Sweden.
Moreover, claim critics, caches of bulletproof vests and night-vision goggles found on the Mavi Marmara may have been intended for Hamas fighters.
According to the basic law, Danon tells the Post, “it’s very clear that you need to disqualify a candidate or a list that meet three criteria, and [Zoabi] actually fulfilled two of them. One is not recognizing Israel as a Jewish democracy.”
The second criterion, he continues, “is supporting – the law doesn’t say that you have to take action – supporting the armed struggle of terrorist organizations. I think that she did much more than supporting. She took an active role by joining the Mavi Marmara, and if we don’t disqualify Zoabi, then we have to change the law.”
The law to which Danon refers is Israel’s Basic Law: The Knesset. In the absence of a constitution, Israel has, over the decades since its founding, enacted a series of basic laws which have a legislative status similar to a constitution.
Even though Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein argued against banning Zoabi since there was not a “critical mass” of evidence against her, Danon says he was hopeful that this time the ban would stick.
“[A] critical mass of evidence? What are they waiting for? For Zoabi to blow up a grenade in the Knesset? For me it was very clear,” he says. “I was not like everybody else who [believed that] it’s a done deal and [that] they will never disqualify her. I figured there was a good chance she would be disqualified.”
Despite Weinstein’s opposition and the fact that Zoabi has never been indicted for any of her alleged crimes, Danon says he “doesn’t accept the position that someone must be indicted to be disqualified. If that is the case, then the law should be repealed, because the law doesn’t say that someone must be indicted.”
He goes on to point out that the founder of the Balad party, fugitive former MK Azmi Bishara, was allowed to run in 2003 even though the elections committee had banned him for reasons similar to those for which it banned Zoabi, and Bishara allegedly went on to betray Israel.
The Balad founder, who is a strong Arab nationalist, fled the country following the 2006 Second Lebanon War after being accused of passing information to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah. He now resides in Qatar.
“We should not have waited for Azmi Bishara to betray Israel like he did, and we should not wait for Zoabi to work with terrorists or to actually [take] an active role in a terrorist organization. That’s why I think that the Supreme Court made a mistake,” says Danon. “He [Bishara] is still a role model for Haneen Zoabi, and you can still see his picture on the website of Balad.”
Danon’s harsh words have prompted Zoabi, herself no stranger to political infighting, to call on attorney-general Weinstein to indict Danon for “incitement” that she believes may be endangering her life.
ASKED WHY he believes the Supreme Court ruled in Zoabi’s favor, Danon says he “cannot speak for the Supreme Court judges,” but would like to modify existing legislation so as to “not leave so much latitude for Supreme Court judges in the process.”
“Maybe,” he muses, “it should be harder for the committee to disqualify candidates, but once they take the decision, the Supreme Court should be permitted only to look at the process – whether it was legal or not – and not actually get [a say] in the ideological reasoning behind it.”
Danon strongly denies the allegations of racism he has faced due to his fight against Zoabi.
“The thing we have to do is... fight strongly those forces that incite against Israel, and not against all the Arab candidates.
Even though I am not happy with the majority of them, she was the only one who was disqualified by the committee,” he explains.
According to Danon’s reasoning, “Democracy must protect itself, and this [ban] is the best example for democracy that is able to protect itself.”
Zoabi is “a role model for the younger generation and is proving that you can hate Israel, you can fight Israel and you can still become a member of Knesset,” he argues. This, he says, is dangerous.
Danon and other critics of Zoabi have pointed to statements she has made in which she explicitly rejects the concept of loyalty to the Jewish state to justify their assertions that she poses a danger to state security.
In 2009, Zoabi upset nationalist MKs when she told Arabs48, a news website affiliated with Balad, that “the language of democracy does not speak of loyalty. This is a language of fascism, just like [former foreign minister Avigdor] Liberman. The language of democracy speaks of rights, equality, and values.”
“Balad’s concept,” she asserted, “rejects the ‘Jewish state’ idea... When you agree with the ‘Jewish state’ idea, you necessarily agree with the idea of loyalty to this state... Rejecting the ‘Jewish state’ concept will block the road for anyone who demands our loyalty to such a state... I am proposing an alternative and fighting for it.”
INTERESTINGLY ENOUGH, Zoabi also supports the idea of banning political parties – although she is, of course, opposed to any ban on herself or Balad.
“In democracy, racism is not allowed,” she explains.
“Democracy is allowed; I am a democratic person, and I represent a democratic party. Yes, I am not a Zionist, I admit that, and I will not be loyal to Zionism.
I think that the Zionism project has treated me as an obstacle to the Jewish state, and this didn’t happen just in 1948, this is an ongoing policy.... They see the Palestinians as an obstacle to the Zionist project.
“I think that in a democracy, those who don’t recognize equality and those who think that some group must have privileges over others, they should be banned: [far-right activist Baruch] Marzel, [National Union MK Michael] Ben-Ari, [Moshe] Feiglin of the Likud, they are racist, they are crazy, they don’t deny it and they say, ‘Yes, this is how we should be.’ They say that the state should be Jewish and not for Palestinians.
This is racism.”
She adds that “the media tried to compare Balad to the right wing. But this is not true – we are the opposite, we are the other side, we are democratic people, and I think, yes, the court should ban them, they are not democratic, they don’t reflect democracy.”
Differentiating herself from the right wing is important, she says.
“They don’t reflect any vision of democracy or how to live together. They say they must expel me, they don’t want to see me here... we never say that we must expel the Jews – we never say the Jews must return to their, um, homelands or countries.”
She is upset by the repeated attempts to ban her party, and now herself as an individual, she says.
These attempts are “humiliating... even if the result at the end is that the court didn’t approve the disqualification.
What I have been through... has been damaging politically and personally due to all the stress.
They make you into something that you are not.
“It is now more and more a difficult mission for us to explain, again and again, our vision, and to say we are not against the Jews, we are not against the Jewish Israelis, we are not against human beings, but against policies, against decisions. We are against any regime and any policies or any laws which don’t recognize me... as a member of an indigenous people.
“We are natives,” she continues, “and Israel doesn’t want to accept this idea – not just the idea of equality, but equality based on my position as a native; that you must give me full recognition, you as Israel must recognize what you did to me in 1948, that you expelled my people, 85 percent of my people.... It is not just discrimination, it is hostility toward the native.”
AVI HALEVI, the legal counsel for the Likud party, argued the case for Zoabi’s disqualification before the High Court of Justice opposite Zoabi’s lawyer, Hassan Jabareen. The court hearing, Halevi explains, is required by law in order to formalize an election committee ban.
According to the Turkel Commission Report on the flotilla incident, Halevi asserts, any attempt to “breach the closure” on Gaza constitutes “giving aid to Hamas,” a terrorist organization.
“It doesn’t make sense. Just to be on the Mavi Marmara is... to fight against Israel. Hamas is a terrorist organization,” he says.
Moreover, he notes, Zoabi was recently photographed in Ramallah with senior members of Hamas’s political leadership.
“It’s so simple. To be on the Marmara is very extreme. So, [in essence] the High Court gave permission to Zoabi and to the other parliament leaders to continue in this way and to breach the closure.”
Regarding Zoabi’s claim that Israel must be a state for all its citizens, Halevi is dismissive.
“There is a constitutional law that the influence of the Jewish narrative will influence the state. It is in the Declaration of Independence that the state is a Jewish state,” he says.
However, he continues, while the state is Jewish by nature on the macro level, from the moment a citizen is born within the state, be they Jewish, Muslim or Christian, they are equal to all other citizens as an individual, with all of the rights that come with citizenship.
“From the minute... the state was created, everybody who is inside it, Jew or Christian or Muslim, they are equal. That’s it.”
However, he continues, “The state was created as the state of the Jewish nation. This is historical justice for the Jewish people. The foundation of the state is based on historical justice for the Jewish people.”
What Zoabi means by her statements, he claims, is not equal rights for all citizens. Balad and its MKs, Halevi says, claim that there is “the narrative of the Jewish people and the narrative of the Palestinian nation.”
“The flag of Israel is the Star of David,” he continues, “and the national anthem is ‘Hatikva’ and the Menorah is the symbol of Israel, and the whole story of the Jews [influences the state, which operates on] the Jewish calendar. The Jewish story is an integral and inseparable part of the Jewish and democratic state. This is according to the law.”
Zoabi, he says, believes “that the Jewish narrative and the Palestinian narrative need to be equal in their influence on the character of the state. If the influence of their [Palestinian] narrative is equal to that of the Jews, the anthem will be ‘Hatikva’ but there will be another anthem, and that will be [the Palestinian nationalist song] ‘Baladi Baladi.’ “Just as there is Hatzionut [Zionism] Boulevard and Jabotinsky Street, if their narrative has equal influence, there will also be Yasser Arafat Street and George Habash Square. Just as we have memorials to David Ben-Gurion, there will be memorials to Ahmed Jabari. That is the image of equality of narrative....”
According to Halevi, the court’s decision to allow Zoabi to run shows that Israel is a “naive democracy.”
IT IS still unclear what the reasoning of the nine justices was, however, as they have as yet to publish their reasons for their decision.
Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, who abstained from the case due to his position as head of the committee that disqualified Zoabi, spoke with the Post at the Knesset, and explained how the committee is set up and why the court has not yet given its reasoning for the decision.
Any group of citizens can bring a complaint to the committee, he says.
“Each election there are a number of petitions and, by the way, the petitions can come, and that’s also very democratic, from anybody, not only from competing lists but from anybody from the public. I chaired the deliberations and I did not participate personally in the vote. Some of my predecessors did not participate, some did, but I explained that I didn’t think I should mix... my judicial role that I have in my general position with a political vote, and it came to the Supreme Court, and the... court decided to overturn the decision of the committee and to qualify MK Zoabi, so she is a candidate in the elections.”
Rubinstein, in his former position as attorney-general, did recommend that Balad be banned during a previous election cycle, which may also have led to his decision to recuse himself during the confirmatory hearing.
According to Rubinstein, the court’s decision had to be reached within an accelerated time frame due to the proximity of elections, with the result that there was not enough time to craft a proper legal document explaining the court’s reasoning. This document, he says, should come later.
ZOABI, WHO lost several of her parliamentary privileges due to her participation in the flotilla, has also come under fire for her calls for a third intifada and a trip to Libya to meet with officials in Muammar Gaddafi’s government prior to the revolution there.
“I hope [the Palestinians] will start a large popular struggle that is political and strategic, similar to the first intifada and not the second,” Zoabi said last year.
Her lawyer, Hassan Jabareen, believes many of the arguments used against his client are unfair portrayals of her actions intended to discredit her.
“In the court, we brought [much material] to show that Haneen Zoabi was totally not involved in any violence during the flotilla. The attorney general...
investigated her participation and the participation of other Arab citizens and he declared... that Haneen Zoabi [was not] involved in any violent act.”
Moreover, he says, the IHH, which was banned by Israel in 2008, was not considered a terrorist organization at the time Zoabi boarded the Mavi Marmara.
“IHH was not considered by the Israeli government as a terror organization, and... anyway it is not involved in armed struggle against Israel, so in any case the claim [that by] participating in the flotilla, as [asserted] by Akunis, [Zoabi was] supporting the armed struggle of the organization has no basis,” Jabareen says.
Regarding Zoabi’s call for a third intifada, Jabareen says he told the court that “anyone reading this article will see that in fact she is criticizing the second intifada, the armed intifada, and she said that if [there are] any protests [they] should be... like Tahrir Square [in Cairo].”
Moreover, he says, any attack on Zoabi for associating with Hamas in the West Bank is “stupid.” The Hamas members in the picture were members of the Palestinian parliament and elected officials. In fact, he continues, all of the Arab MKs in the Knesset have visited them and just as it would be unfair to single out Zoabi in this case, so too is it unfair to single her out regarding her opposition to Israel as a Jewish state.
“Halevi argued before the court,” Jabareen says, “that Zoabi called for a state [for] all its citizens, and if she advocates for a state for all its citizens and equality between Jews and Arabs, this negates the definition of Israel as a Jewish state... the struggle for a state [for] all its citizens is a struggle for Balad and not just for Haneen Zoabi. Haneen Zoabi just joined Balad in 2009. So if Balad, which initiated this struggle, wasn’t disqualified... so if you want to disqualify Haneen Zoabi, it’s just political persecution.”
All the claims regarding his client’s alleged extremism, he says, are really part of a “process of dehumanization against Haneen Zoabi.”
THE DEBATE over Haneen Zoabi seems less about her (although she certainly brings out strong feelings in many Israelis) than about the ideas that she represents.
The fight seems to be between those, like Avi Halevi, who see democracy and Zionism as compatible, and those, like Zoabi, who see the emergence of a Jewish ethnic nation-state as incompatible with democratic values.
Interestingly enough, there are some, even among Zoabi’s harshest critics, who stood against the ban. One, Dr. Gerald Steinberg of NGO Monitor, noted, “The effort to ban Zoabi was entirely counterproductive, and gave her the continued publicity and platform that she has always sought and that she uses very well to her advantage.”
Zoabi certainly agrees. Asked if Balad will improve its position in the next Knesset and receive more mandates, Zoabi replied in the affirmative. “Yes,” she said. “I think we will get four.”