The Israeli High Court has ruled yesterday on several petitions regarding the upcoming elections. Taking the recommended position of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, the court reversed the Knesset Elections Committee decision to ban the Palestinian-Israeli party union of Balad-United Arab List; to reverse the ban on Jewish Ofer Cassif who is part of Hadash (Hadash-Ta’al is another dual Palestinian-Israeli union); and finally, to ban the leader of Jewish Power Michael Ben Ari from running – Ben Ari was otherwise approved by the committee.
The merger of the rabbi Kahane disciples of Jewish Power with the Jewish Home party was a move orchestrated by Netanyahu, which drew widespread critique, as the Jewish Power is an extension of the Kahanist Kach party, which was banned from the Knesset in 1988 on grounds of racism. Netanyahu thus offered it political legitimacy, also in order to secure a future coalition and not lose votes under the 3.25% threshold.
The permitting of the Balad-UAL to run actually follows a familiar pattern – where these parties are banned by the Knesset Elections Committee on the basis of their advocacy for a state of all its citizens, and the ban is rescinded by the High Court. The Elections Committee bars them for violating the “Jewish and Democratic” clause of the Knesset party law, and then the High Court reverses it, citing a more liberal interpretation of the law (I will elaborate on this further down).
Nonetheless, the decision to bar an individual, rather than a whole party, sets a new precedent in Israeli election history.
Racism as a disqualifying factor
Michael Ben Ari, the leader of Jewish Power, is now banned from running. He would have been 5th on the slate of the Union of Right-wing Parties. The ruling means that 2nd on the Jewish Power list, Itamar Ben Gvir, who has not been barred, will move up from 8th place to 7th. Ben Gvir is renowned for his adoration of Baruch Goldstein who perpetrated the Al-Ibrahimi mosque massacre in 1994, killing 29 – Ben Gvir has a poster of Goldstein in his living-room.
And this leads us to the question, of whether this barring of Ben Ari is really meaningful, or whether it is cosmetic? Ben Ari is being barred for his racism – but what about the racism of the whole merged party which he would have been part of?
Party leader Rafi Peretz (Jewish Home, the main party in the merger), has said in the past said that Muslims don’t have a real connection to Jerusalem, that almost all of them don’t know the Quran, and that the Al-Aqsa mosque should probably have been placed in Saudi Arabia, not on the ‘Temple Mount’.
Second on the list is Bezalel Smotrich, who authored a “Decision Plan”, by which all Palestinians under Israel’s control could either submit fully to Apartheid by relinquishing “national aspirations”, or be expelled, if necessary with brute force. Beyond the Apartheid-ethnic-cleansing advocacy, Smotrich has also advocated racial separation in maternity wards, saying: “It’s only natural my wife would not want to lie next to someone who just gave birth to a baby that might murder her baby in another 20 years”.
We could go on and on with such racist examples, and not just on the right – we could talk about the centrist Benny Gantz and his boasting of killing many Arabs in his election videos, of Yair Lapid and his wish for “minimum Palestinians”. Let’s face it – Israeli Zionist politics are so steeped in racism, that it’s hard to know where to even begin, and if racism was really a disqualifying factor, most of the Knesset would be empty.
The debate over the meaning of equality
But then there are those seeking a remedy to this racism – like Cassif, like Balad-UAL. They are initially barred because Israel generally considers a challenge to its Jewish character to be a kind of existential threat. But the High Court has been reversing these decisions consistently. What is the basis for this reversal?
Five days ago, Ofer Aderet of Haaretz did a fact-check concerning the recent spat between Prime Minister Netanayhu and Israeli celebrity Rotem Sela, where Sela claimed that Israel was a state of all its citizens, and Netanayahu countered her, saying it wasn’t, that it is actually the nation-state of Jews alone.
Aderet goes back to 1996, when the High Court ruled against a petition to bar Ahmed Tibi’s Ta’al party from running. The judge Mishael Cheshin opined:
Our view is that the determination that the State of Israel is ‘a state of all its citizens’ does not deny the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish state.
Judge Cheshin asked rhetorically:
And if someone claims that the Israel is not a state of all of its citizens? Can it be argued that the State of Israel is a state of only a portion of its citizens?
To which he answered:
Indeed, equality among citizens is a basic principle of democracy.
In his ruling, Cheshin also relied on Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which defines Israel as a Jewish state “that will ensure complete equality of social and political rights of all of its citizens.”
Now, this all sounds quite good on the face of it. And on a practical positive note, it has allowed a Palestinian-Israeli party seeking equality to run – that is good in itself. It has also set a liberal precedence by which High Court judges have basically been ruling until now.
The problem is, that the extolling of “equality”, indeed “complete equality”, ignores the institutional discrimination that Palestinian citizens face, due to their non-Jewish ‘nationality’. This duality of citizenship and nationality that Israel applies, is a means of obfuscating Israeli Apartheid, where Citizenship (supposedly equal but not), is often used as an alibi for the greater national discrimination.
Cheshin’s citing of the “complete equality” clause from the Declaration of Independence, also puts his ruling in a current critical light, where this “complete equality” was officially annulled last year in the Nation-State law. Critics of the law used the that Declaration as their basis for countering it as being racist.
The Declaration of Independence was likewise a piece of paper that looked good for PR purposes, but really did not reflect the real aims and intents of the Jewish State, nor did it have legal binding power. The long list of racist laws that Israel has enacted since its founding until today, are its real ‘declaration’ of who and what it is.
Yet the Palestinian-Israeli citizens and parties, they find themselves in a conundrum. Many of them (as well as their conscientious Jewish brethren such as Ofer Cassif), want to bring about change. Since they are Israeli citizens, they want to bring about change from within that system. Yet the whole system is biased against them to begin with: The first act of Israel was to demographically engineer its political system by ethnic cleansing of most Palestinians. Their numbers mean that they are always on the margins, so as not to endanger the “Jewish and democratic” state. The Zionist parties at the left, right and center, mostly want to have little or nothing to do with them, and they can never become part of a governing coalition – it just doesn’t happen.
This already looks bad, even without banning the few Palestinian parties who seek change. Disqualifying them is clearly not good PR for Israel, as far as liberals are concerned.
So now, Balad-UAL, as well as Ofer Cassif, are allowed to run. For whatever it’s worth. If they do pass the electoral threshold (providing the “Arabs come to vote in droves”, as Netanyahu would phrase it), they may help present a voice promoting equality in Israel’s parliament.
And a one less racist potential lawmaker in the Israeli parliament, such as Ben Ari, is no doubt a welcome absence. But this does not root out Israeli Zionist racism – that one is a completely mainstream and permanent feature. My fear is, that taking out one racist will legitimize the others, that people will now hail this as a sign of Israel being a democracy, after all.
But Israel is not a real democracy. It is a “racial democracy”. It has trappings of a democracy, but it is an Apartheid state. The only meaningful question as I see it, is how that can be changed.