Israeli Arab MK Hanin Zoabi (National Democratic Assembly) will not be able compete in the coming Knesset elections, the Central Elections Committee ruled on Wednesday. The decision, which must be cleared by the High Court of Justice before it takes effect, followed a heated debate over the disqualification of several MKs and parties.
A 19-member majority comprising the representatives of Kadima, Likud, Yisrael Beytenu, Shas, United Torah Judaism, the National Union and the New National Religious Party (Habayit Hayehudi) voted in favor of the motion to remove Zoabi's name from the ballot (her party has her listed second on its Knesset candidate list). The left-wing parties (including Labor) and the center-left Hatnuah (led by former MK Tzipi Livni) voted to strike down the measure, which came after a heated seven-hour debate.
The High Court of Justice will review the decision next week. Because of the high stakes involved, a nine-justice panel will hear the case.
Although the motion to strike Zoabi's candidacy passed, another petition to have her entire party disqualified was rejected. A similar request to take the Arab party Ra'am-Ta'al off the ballot was also rejected by the committee by a 17-7 majority. Committee Chairman Elyakim Rubinstein chose not to cast a vote.
MK Ahmad Tibi (Ra'am-Ta'al) attacked the committee, saying it is composed of "seventh-tier politicians and frustrated lawyers who want to make headlines on the backs of the Arabs." The committee members representing the right-wing parties were outraged by Tibi's comments and threatened to walk out. "Let's see you use such language in Syria," one member hurled at him. To which he responded, "You are fascist Jews who have been caught up in their own rhetoric."
After things got out of hand, Rubinstein pleaded with the participants to calm down, saying, "You are behaving as if this is a bazaar." After condemning Tibi's comments, Rubinstein adjourned the hearing for a several minutes break.
Chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beytenu) accused Zoabi of supporting terrorism and said he was baffled by Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein's legal opinion from earlier this week in which he said Zoabi should be allowed to compete for a Knesset seat. MK Michael Ben Ari (Strong Israel) said, "We need to end this farce where representatives of [Hamas political bureau chief] Khaled Mashaal and other people who coddle the butcher from Damascus [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] serve in the Knesset on the taxpayer's dime."
MK Isaac (Buji) Herzog (Labor) said his party was against all the motions to disqualify candidates: "Zoabi's actions [in participating in the 2010 Gaza flotilla, during which IDF forces were attacked] are despicable; it has made our blood boil and our hearts twitch, and it makes you want to go nuts."
MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) also expressed displeasure with the motions to disqualify the candidates. "If we were to disqualify all those who disliked us, most of us wouldn't be here," Horowitz said.
Rubinstein tried to say that removing an entire party list from the ballot was an extreme measure that is also very uncommon, but added that every democracy had a right to defend itself.
Zoabi said the decision smacked of "moral illegitimacy that comes with the tyrannical rule of the majority and the suppression of a basic right in a democracy."
"The decision is a result of a political vendetta and a lowly attempt to infringe the representation of Arab constituencies," she said. "I am convinced that in a democracy one has to continue fighting for equal status, as it is the only available course of action."
MK Ofir Akunis (Likud), who submitted the original request to disqualify Zoabi, welcomed the decision. "Zoabi clearly violated Basic Law: The Knesset by partaking in the Mavi Marmara attack and therefore she has no place in the Knesset," Akunis said. "I hope, and believe, that the disqualification will be ratified by the High Court of Justice."
Following the vote, National Democratic Assembly leader MK Jamal Zahalka said, "The committee's decision is neither legal nor democratic; it is part of the far Right's general election campaign. This is a severe blow to the Arab voters as a whole, and is designed to weaken them politically in the Knesset while bolstering the Right," he said.
Zahalka said the party "fully supports MK Hanin Zoabi and every action she takes," and reiterated that "if the High Court of Justice does not overturn this decision, the National Democratic Assembly would not compete in the upcoming Knesset elections."
He also said that the Central Elections Committee had to be stripped of the power to disqualify candidates because that forum has long ago turned into a political entity that is both undemocratic and plagued by vested interests, and no longer serves as a judicial body that bears any significant."
The committee was expected to continue deliberating additional motions on Thursday. The items on the docket include requests to disqualify the ultra-nationalist Strong Israel party, which is led by MKs Aryeh Eldad and Michael Ben Ari (both originally form the National Union) and a petition to remove the haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism on the grounds that they discriminate against women.