Should the Arab-Israeli Balad party be allowed to run in Israeli elections?

The Balad party rejects Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and its founder was accused of spying for Hezbollah against Israel.
(L to R) Balad party leader Sami Abu Shehadeh, Ta’al party leader Ahmed Tibi, and Hadash party leader Ayman Odeh announce the launch of their campaign on February 20, 2021, in Nazareth, Israel’s largest Arab city. The three Arab parties have since broken up, with Hadash and Ta’al running together and Balad running on its own. (Photo by Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images)

We’re curious…

Should there be limits on the spectrum of political parties that are allowed to run in a democratic election? If the answer is yes, then at what point are the views of a political party too extreme to be included?

As Israel prepares to go to the polls in a few weeks (on November 1st), these questions are at the center of a debate over the Arab-Israeli Balad party. Balad rejects Israel as a Jewish state and instead calls for a binational state, a “state of all its citizens,” according to the party’s platform.

The founder of the Balad party, Azmi Bishara, gave speeches in which he praised Hezbollah (yes, the Hezbollah) and the armed struggle against Israel. He was also accused of spying for Hezbollah against Israel during the Second Lebanon War.

Last week, the Central Elections Committee disqualified Balad from running in the election on the grounds that it undermines Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state. Balad has since appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, and the panel of justices will hear their appeal today.

This isn’t the first time that the elections panel has disqualified Balad from running — it has happened in past elections as well. Each time, Balad has appealed the disqualification, and each time, the Supreme Court has overturned the ruling and allowed Balad to run.

According to Article 7A of the Basic Law of the Knesset, a candidate must be disqualified from running for the Knesset if they negate Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state; incite racism; or support an armed struggle by an enemy state or a terrorist organization against Israel.

So, what does the Balad party stand for? Should they be allowed to run in Israel’s elections? And what are the boundaries of acceptable political positions in an election?

What is the Balad party and what does it stand for?

The Balad party rejects Israel as a Jewish state and supports creating a new “binational” state.

The Balad party leader, Sami Abu Shehadeh, stated this bluntly in a recent interview with the Kan public broadcaster. When asked whether he considered Israel to be a Jewish and democratic state, he replied that “The solution is to change the State of Israel from being a Jewish state to a democratic state.”

Abu Shehadeh also said recently that Prime Minister Yair Lapid should stand trial at the International Criminal Court at the Hague because of the “crimes” he has committed in his policies in the West Bank.

According to the Israel Democracy Institute, “Balad is at the far left of the spectrum of Israeli parties, and it champions turning the State of Israel into a ‘state of all of its citizens.’”

By contrast, the Meretz party, which is the left-most party of the Zionist Israeli parties, believes that “Israel is a democratic state, a state of the Jewish people and a state of all its citizens,” according to the party’s platform.

“Balad also supports an Israeli withdrawal from all of the contested territories, advocates granting the right of return to Palestinians in order to solve the refugee problem, and is in favor of the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital,” according to the Israel Democracy Institute.

According to the party’s manifesto, it supports “the evacuation of all of the settlements and the removal of the racist separation fence.” 

The founder of the Balad party, Azmi Bishara, was charged and indicted for supporting Hezbollah. In 2006, the Israeli High Court of Justice dropped the charges, arguing that his speeches were protected by his parliamentary immunity as a Knesset member.

According to the Israeli government, in 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, Bishara was in touch with Hezbollah leaders and promoted violence against Israel. 

Amid the allegations that he was spying for the terror group, in 2007, Balad resigned from the Knesset and left Israel.

Diversity of perspectives: Should the Balad party be allowed to run?

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, the leader of the National Unity party, supported the disqualification.

“Balad stands against the Jewish and democratic nature of the State of Israel, and therefore does not belong in the Knesset,” he said in a statement. “There is no place in the Israeli parliament for members who take extreme positions against Israel.”

The Yisrael Beytenu party agreed that Sami Abu Shehadeh (the leader of Balad) “must be outside of the Israeli Knesset.”

“One who denies the existence of the State of Israel and does not recognize it as a Jewish and democratic state is not worthy of being part of [the Knesset],” they said in a statement, adding that Abu Shehadeh should “be part of the parliament in Ramallah.”

The organization that filed the petition to disqualify the Balad party, called “Together: For a New Social Order,” echoed this sentiment. They said that the party’s platform “suggests erasing Israel’s Jewish identity” and “negates the existence of Israel.”

And Israeli-Arab activist Yoseph Haddad made the argument bluntly, tweeting a list of reasons to disqualify the party:

“Support for terrorism. Opposition to the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Incitement and hostility to the state. Opposition to the IDF and the security forces…There is no reason for the existence of such a party in the Israeli Knesset!”

On the other side, Israel’s attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, argued against the disqualification of Balad.

“Even though Balad has come close to the forbidden zone where a [party] is barred from competing in Knesset elections, no evidence has emerged showing that Balad in recent years has acted to turn the most dubious parts of its platform into reality,” she argued.

Meretz party leader Zehava Galon also opposed the disqualification, noting that the Supreme Court has overturned this ruling in the past.

Those who seek to disqualify Arab parties “want to prevent the participation of the Arab public in the elections and continue the campaign of delegitimization,” she argued.

The Haaretz editorial board agreed, calling the attempts to disqualify the party “shameful” and “despicable.”

“Balad is a legitimate party representing a discriminated-against minority that seeks full equality and the absolute democratization of Israel. We can only hope that the Supreme Court will not hesitate to overturn the ruling and allow Balad to take part in the election,” they wrote.

Meanwhile, the Likud and Yesh Atid parties did not participate in the vote. “While each party gave its own reasons for boycotting the vote, politics were also widely regarded as being a factor,” The Jerusalem Post reported.