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How strong is Israel’s democracy?

Israeli society must let elected Arab Knesset members speak up, even if what they say angers most Israeli Jews and destabilizes consensus.
Heba Yazbak, Israeli Arab member of the Balad (National Democratic Alliance) party, speaks during a campaign rally for the Joint List political alliance ahead of upcoming September parliamentary elections, in the Arab town of Kafr Yasif in northern Israel on August 23, 2019. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)        (Photo credit should read AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images)

The Central Elections Committee is a hybrid creature of politics and law. Its head is a veteran Supreme Court justice, and so is his substitute, but his deputies are Knesset members from the large parties, and the members of the committee reflect the party makeup of the Knesset. This is a very important committee that meets not just on the eve of an election, but also functions between elections when new elections are declared, and is entrusted with ensuring proper elections — making sure there are enough voting slips at each polling site, setting the hours the polls open and close, guaranteeing an accurate count of votes, preventing fraud, publicizing election results and ensuring fairness in campaign advertising and publicity. 

The most striking decision by a chairman of the committee was made in January 2003, when Supreme Court Justice Mishael Hashin ordered a halt to the television broadcast of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s speech, midway through, because his remarks, in Hashin's opinion, constituted prohibited election propaganda. 

The committee is presented with various issues, including the lawfulness of the placement of cameras at polling sites — ostensibly to prevent vote fraud — as well as topics that arise from technological change. 

One of the functions of the committee is to endorse and discuss requests to disqualify electoral lists and candidates that do not adhere, allegedly, to the requirements of candidacy. This issue usually ends up in the headlines because it becomes part of the wrangling whereby the right seeks to disqualify elements of the left, and vice versa. If the committee decides to disqualify a candidate or a list from the Knesset, this decision must be authorized by the high court, which usually rejects the disqualification, especially by means of procedural rulings. 

This process of submitting candidacy, disqualification by the Central Elections Committee and rejection of the disqualification by the high court has become a sort of ritual in Israel, which attracts attention even if the end is predictable.

In recent days public attention has focused on Knesset member Heba Yazbak of Balad, which is part of the Arab Joint List. As the Sept. 17 election for the 22nd Knesset approached, an appeal was submitted to the high court contesting the elections committee’s approval of the candidacy of the Joint List, but it was rejected in August. The high court, when debating the appeal, sharply reproved Yazbak for her statements about Lebanese Druze terrorist Samir Kuntar but did not disqualify her candidacy, because it wasn’t asked to discuss the matter. 

Now, with the March 2 elections for the 23rd Knesset just weeks away, the right has raised the demand that she be disqualified, thus causing Blue and White and Labor-Gesher to follow suit and prove its “patriotism,” while Meretz, which is in a united list with Labor-Gesher, opposes the disqualification and intends to vote against it. While the final decision isn’t in the hands of the committee but up to the high court, the media is highlighting the praise the young Knesset member has expressed on social media for various “shahids,” or martyrs, and for one of the most brutal among them, Kuntar, who was a member of the Palestine Liberation Front. She also expressed longing for Gamal Abdel Nasser, the president of Egypt from 1956 until his death in 1970. 

Most Jews in Israel, when they hear Yazbak’s remarks, are shaken. But the world isn’t divided between those who like her remarks and those who don’t like them, but between those who can take them and try to understand where they come from, and those who prefer to boycott the speaker and bar her from the Knesset. 

Yazbak’s background would seem like an Israeli success story of the effective integration of an Arab-Palestinian generation in Israeli society. Her father, Mahmoud Yazbak, is a well-known and esteemed professor at the University of Haifa who headed the Department on Middle East History and served as chairman of the Adalah legal center and president of the Israeli Association of Middle East Studies and Islam. She herself was born and raised in Nazareth and studied at Haifa University and Tel Aviv University, where she received a doctorate in sociology. Before she was elected to the Knesset, she was a lecturer at the Open University. 

If you like, this could be seen as a family’s success story, a family for whom the state opened its doors and enabled to reach the most senior positions in the academy and in politics. 

In fact, this is a much more complicated picture. This is the story of a modern young woman whose accumulated knowledge has entrenched her opinions and apparently led her to reach harsh conclusions about the Jewish state.

Balad is a party whose roots are in boycotting state institutions and refraining from electoral participation. The Sons of the Village movement, which was the main affiliation of its founders, saw integration in the state as turning their backs on Arab nationalism. As opposed to the Palestinian communists who supported the 1947 UN partition plan, and the southern branch of the Palestinian Islamic Movement that accepted the existence of the state and sees itself as part of it, the Sons of the Village saw themselves as Arabs who live in Israel under a kind of occupation. The 1979 peace with Egypt was seen in their eyes as an Israeli effort to damage Arab unity and the 1993 Oslo Accord was rejected as an Israeli conspiracy against the Palestinians that enabled the continuation of the occupation under the guise of an agreement. 

Support for “resistance,” in various meanings, is part of the basic world view of this party, and expression of admiration for martyrs is a natural part of this. It’s no coincidence that it was three Balad members who withdrew from the Joint List’s decision to recommend that the president charge Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White, with the task of forming the government after the election to the 22nd Knesset. With this decision the first crack at forming a government passed to Netanyahu, who failed, just as Gantz later did. 

Balad finds it hard to distinguish between doves and hawks, those who seek to reach a diplomatic agreement with the Palestinians and the Arab world and those who oppose the division of the land, and thus, peace. The fact that Yazbak joined this party should be seen as a failure for anyone who believes that education is a key to willingness to listen to the other. It also is a failure of the idea that whoever listens to the Jewish Israeli narrative could not cling to positions that ascribe an ongoing conspiracy to the Israeli side and would be open to the narrative even if she doesn’t accept it. 

Still, Israeli democracy is strong enough to include people such as Yazbak and their statements. Barring her from the Knesset would only radicalize the positions of other young Arab intellectuals who believe they have no chance of viewing Israel as their real home. Whoever gives up on Yazbak gives up on the chance of dialogue with people who will lead Arab Palestinians in Israel in the coming years, and this dialogue has no substitute. 

As for the Central Elections Committee, it’s best that it leave the question of meeting the conditions for Knesset candidacy to the high court, and to give up on the stage where its members’ votes are entirely political, whereas the high court’s decisions at the next stage are professional and careful. 

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