Israeli Supreme Court backs democracy

Campaigning is already well under way for the first big election of 2013, the Israeli election on 22 January. Voters are not spoilt for choice; there are 17 parties represented in the current parliament, or Knesset, with plenty more hoping to make the cut this time. (Voting is pure proportional representation, D’Hondt method, with a 2% threshold.)

But the Central Elections Committee, a largely partisan body, had tried to narrow the available options a bit by disqualifying Hanin Zoabi, an MP from the Arab party Balad or National Democratic Alliance (and the first woman to represent one of the Arab parties). Her offence was to have participated in the Gaza flotilla of 2010 and more generally to have rejected the idea of Israel as a specifically Jewish state.

Despite the calls of “treason” that have been directed at her, Zoabi has not been charged with any offence; the attorney-general a year ago announced that the flotilla case was closed due to “significant evidentiary and legal difficulties”. So yesterday the Israeli Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, overturned the ban and reinstated her candidacy.

This is not the first time the Central Elections Committee has over-reached in this fashion. In 2009 it tried to ban Balad and another Arab party entirely, and was again overruled by the Supreme Court. As Zoabi’s lawyer said yesterday, the continuing effort to hamper Arab parties and candidates “indicates that the aim of the right-wing is to de-legitimize the elected Arab leadership in Israel.”

Sure enough, in a statement issued after the Supreme Court decision, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party said “the existing law must be changed to state unequivocally that any expression of support for terrorism proscribes one from running for the Knesset”, and promised to “act immediately in the next Knesset to amend the existing law.”

This is a disturbing sign of where Israel seems to be going. In its provision of civil and political rights to its Arab citizens, Israel, although sometimes falling short of western standards, has been streets ahead of normal practice in the region. But the country is now in the hands of a political leadership whose respect for democracy and the rule of law is transparently thin.

Nor, sadly, is there much hope of this state of affairs changing after the election. All the indications are that Netanyahu will be comfortably returned as prime minister. But at least the Supreme Court seems willing to defend some of the basics of democracy.


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