For decades, the Israeli government has boasted of being an oasis of democracy and pluralism in a region noted for authoritarian regimes. On the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs website you will find this description:
In several Arab countries and Iran, minorities are suppressed. In stark contrast, minorities in Israel are entitled to equal rights under the law and have judicial recourse to addressing their grievances when problems arise. These same minorities are represented in the Israeli Knesset.
The Associated Press is reporting that today Israel’s Central Elections Committee decided to ban “Arab political parties from running in next month’s parliamentary elections.” From the article:
Knesset spokesman Giora Pordes said the election committee voted overwhelmingly in favor of the motion, accusing the country’s Arab parties of incitement, supporting terrorist groups and refusing to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Arab lawmakers have traveled to countries listed among Israel’s staunchest enemies, including Lebanon and Syria.
Roughly one-fifth of Israel’s 7 million citizens are Arab. The decision does not affect Arab lawmakers in predominantly Jewish parties or in the nation’s communist party. The decision will be challenged before Israel’s Supreme Court.
UPDATE: The generally right-leaning Jerusalem Post has more details on the rhetorical fisticuffs that lead to Monday’s decision. A leader of Balad, one of the Arab parties, is reported to have said, “All we demand is democracy! What are you afraid of when we ask for equality? We are the sons of this country, we were born here and we are willing to treat you with equality, so why don’t you? We offer to live together.” A leader of the other banned Arab party, UAL, explained himself this way:
“We say, any vote given to Kadima is a bullet in the chest of a Palestinian child in Gaza,” [Ahmed] Tibi told the committee prior to the vote. “Israel’s problem is not Balad, not UAL, but the Kadima Party and [Defense Minister and Labor chairman Ehud] Barak. These people started a war as an election campaign. The State of Israel is democratic for Jews and Jewish for its Arab citizens. We never said that we don’t recognize the State of Israel. We are part of it, but we will never accept Zionism, which is an ideology that aspires to banish us from our homes.”
At roughly the same time, a leader of Kadima called the Balad official an unemployed bum and told him to “go back to Syria.” The Jerusalem Post also notes that “in 2003, the committee approved a similar request to disqualify [the Arab party] Balad from Knesset elections, a decision that the High Court of Justice later reversed.”
MORE: In the comments, jresponds adds more context, noting the other parties that have been banned in the past and the fact that few expect the courts to uphold the ban. Another Israel watcher suggests that the real concern for Israel is the increasing divisions in the Knesset, which if continued could lead to Arab parties voluntarily pulling out in opposition to the government, an outcome that would not help efforts for a solution to the regional conflict.