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Palestinian Citizens Wearily Eye Israeli Elections

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The Communists have gained some protection from their status as a joint Jewish-Arab party, one that includes a Jew among its current four Knesset members. However, in line with the long-term collapse of the Israeli Jewish left, the overwhelming majority of the Front's members are Palestinian; the rump Jewish caucus almost operates as a party within the party.

The Islamist stream, known as the United Arab List, includes, in practice, not only the southern wing of the Islamic Movement but socially conservative factions and the one-man Taal party of Ahmed Tibi, long vilified by Israel for his close connections to the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

But the focus of Israeli politicians' outrage has been the National Democratic Assembly party, which was established in 1995, in the wake of the signing of the Oslo accords. Its original leader, Azmi Bishara, who popularized the slogan of a "state of all its citizens," treated the Knesset principally as "an arena of confrontation," using it to expose the limits of Israel's democracy.

Bishara has been living in exile since 2007, when the Shin Bet accused him, improbably, of having helped Hizballah target sites in Israel with its rockets during the Israeli attack on Lebanon a year earlier.

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His place as Zionism's public enemy number one has been usurped unexpectedly by Haneen Zoabi, who was elected to the Knesset on the NDA ticket at the last election, in 2009. She is the first Palestinian woman to sit in the Knesset for a Palestinian party.

Her main crime in the eyes of the Jewish parties was her participation in the aid flotilla that tried to break the siege of Gaza in May 2010. The lead ship, the Mavi Marmara, on which Zoabi sailed, was attacked by the Israeli navy in international waters, and nine humanitarian activists were killed.

Zoabi returned to Israel with an eye-witness account of Israeli brutality aboard the ship that gave the lie to Israel's account of what took place and helped stoke international criticism of Israel's action. As a result, she has been relentlessly hounded in the Knesset chamber; demonized by politicians and the media; and subjected to a wave of death threats from the Israeli public.

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Questioning the right of the Palestinian parties, especially the NDA, to contest national elections has become an established feature of each campaign of the past decade. But the Zionist parties have been able to move beyond mere threats into concerted efforts to disqualify the parties and individual candidates.

This has been possible because a highly partisan body called the Central Elections Committee is charged with overseeing how the campaign is conducted. The committee, dominated by representatives from the main Zionist parties, is given a facade of legitimacy by having a high court judge sit as chairman.

In the 2003 and 2009 elections, the committee tried to ban the NDA, both times with the open support of the Shin Bet, and also targeted elements of the United Arab List. The committee's decisions have always been overturned on appeal to the high court. But it is widely assumed that, were one of the Arab parties to be disqualified, the others would pull out of the running too.

It looked as though this election would run according to the same script. But while several motions from the right were proposed to ban the NDA and the United Arab List, they were ultimately rejected by the committee, narrowly in the case of the NDA.

Instead, the committee singled out the NDA's Haneen Zoabi, barring her from running again for the Knesset. The decision was reached despite an advisory opinion from the attorney-general, Yehuda Weinstein, that there was "no sufficient, exceptional critical mass of evidence" to disqualify her.

The Basic Law on the Knesset makes disqualification of a party or individual candidate possible if they have: incited racism; denied Israel's Jewish and democratic character; or supported armed struggle or terrorism against Israel.

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The committee pointed both to Zoabi's participation in the 2010 aid flotilla to Gaza, declaring it "support for terrorism," and to her rejection of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

The case against Zoabi was so insubstantial that few observers doubted it would be overturned by the high court.

NDA officials pointed out that she had not personally chosen to take part on the Mavi Marmara. The High Follow-Up Committee, a body representing the whole community, had decided that the Palestinian minority should be represented, and her party had selected her. Similarly, her ideological positions about Israel's character simply reflected the NDA platform.

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Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. He is the 2011 winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are "Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East" (Pluto Press) and "Disappearing Palestine: (more...)

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