Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

Q&A: 'Without Loyalty, No Citizenship'

Daan Bauwens interviews DANNY HERSHTAL of the Yisrael Beitenu party in Israel

JERUSALEM, Jan 20 2009 (IPS) - Arab Israeli lists Balad and Ta'al might not be allowed to take part in the upcoming elections. Last Monday, representatives from all major parties voted for the exclusion of the lists. Danny Hershtal, candidate of main instigator Yisrael Beitenu explains why his party considered such a move necessary.

In the shadow of operation Cast Lead and a growing feeling of national conformity, right-wing parties Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home) and National Union petitioned for the exclusion of Arab Israeli parties Balad and United Arab List-Ta'al.

The Central Election Committee consisting of representatives of all parties overwhelmingly voted Monday for disqualification of the Arab lists. Balad and Ta'al are now awaiting the verdict of the High Court.

It is widely expected that the High Court will overrule the decision by the Central Election Committee, as happened in 2003 and 2006 before elections were held. Human rights associations, media and left-wing politicians accuse the Israeli right of "cheap politics" and "winning votes on the backs of soldiers in Gaza", while Yisrael Beitenu persists that their initiative was little more than "legal responsibility".

IPS: What are the arguments for the exclusion? Danny Hershtal: According to Israeli law, a party that runs for the Knesset has to abide by the rules set out in Israel's Declaration of Independence which says that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state. While in the past, there have been parties that have represented Israeli Arabs in terms of their rights and equality within the Jewish state, the leaders of Balad en Ta'al specifically negate the idea of Israel being a Jewish state. Therefore we felt that they contradicted the law and could not possibly run in the elections.

IPS: What is the evidence you hold against Balad and Ta'al? DH: We have recently compiled new evidence: during this last military operation in Gaza there was a rally in the Israeli Arab town of Sakhnin in Northern Israel at which point one of the members of Balad called out on Israeli Arabs not only to protest the actions but also to physically assault soldiers and to lead an armed rebellion against Israel. This goes beyond any sense of democratic protest or any democratic dissent on a government decision, it's a call for outright rebellion. We'll be presenting these statements to the High Court, showing that these parties do not simply disagree with the government. They are parties which openly want to overthrow and change the nature of the country. That goes beyond the spectrum of what should be allowed.

IPS: Attempts to exclude Arab parties from the elections have failed in 2003 and 2006. Why should it be any different this time? DH: I can't say I have great confidence that it will work. But we have the law on our side and we have the responsibility to show that these parties have gone beyond what's democratically acceptable. It will even act as a sign to Israeli Arabs: if they feel they have grievance against the government, they have the democratic right to voice it, but not through leaders that fight and create further violence in the country. That's not the way they can achieve the kind of equality and enfranchisement they deserve.

They have to choose leaders that want to be part of the country, that may disagree with the government but can't call out for outright dissent. During the last elections the leader of Balad, Azmi Bshara, was accused of helping Hizbullah during the second Lebanon war. He fled the country before he could be indicted. Balad has never distanced itself from Bshara's actions and they still have a picture on their website as the inspirational leader of Balad. Again, the treasonous nature of these parties is revealed.

IPS: How do you react to the accusation of Jewish left and media that this is an election stunt to make headlines and win votes? DH: There's a sound legal basis for what we're doing, and therefore I wouldn't call it a stunt. In all honesty I think Yisrael Beitenu would benefit more from having them run. Because when they run and open their mouths and say something violent and inciting, the media attention they get makes us go up in the polls. So it's not in our electoral interest to have them disqualified. We have a legal responsibility. And we feel that the High Court has been blind to the actual incitement, we hope this time they will change their minds and do what is appropriate according to the law.

IPS: In the meantime, Avigdor Liberman (Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Strategic Affairs and President of Yisrael Beitenu) is campaigning with the slogan 'Without loyalty, no citizenship'. Isn't this a way to directly target Israeli Arabs? DH: To a certain extent, yes, but there are also Jews who don't take responsibilities and loyalties that are demanded from a citizen by any state. While I admit that there's definitely discrimination against Arab Israelis, from a legal perspective they do have all the rights. And while they have the right to demand a higher level of equality and equal funding for government programmes, they don't have the right to demand the dissolution of the country.

We are very proud to enjoy the support of the Israeli Druze community: they are serving in the army, willing to accept Israel as a Jewish state and would like nothing more than to wear their citizenship, their loyalty on their sleeve and be judged by the commitments that they've made to the country to be treated as equal citizens.

IPS: Isn't it logical that Arabs or Palestinians aren't loyal to a state that is repeatedly called 'Jewish'? DH: We can't allow a continuation of the fight about the country's nature. If that were to happen, the country would loose its legitimacy, both internally and externally. Israel was founded on the principle of being a Jewish state and has chosen to have a democratic government which honours the right of all its citizens to enjoy equal protection under the law. Unfortunately, Arab Israeli parties don't have leaders that are interested in bettering the rights of the Arabs, but leaders that are interested in causing trouble, that are actually trying to undermine the foundation of the state.

For instance, the Arab parties never vote on the budget. With substandard infrastructure and sewage in the Arab towns in Israel, you would expect that at least their elected leaders would intervene in the budget. But they never do, because they feel it has an underlying bias against Arabs. Essentially, they're trying to undermine the state, instead of working with it for the betterment of the population.

It was the same at the meeting of the Central Election Committee, when we decided to exclude them: it was almost comical when one of the Arab leaders yelled: "Israel is a racist country that's excluding parties while it's drinking the blood of Palestinian children". In the same sentence that they accuse Israel of racism, they drag out the oldest, most disgusting anti-semitic imagery.

While the left-wing parties in Israel have protested against many of our ideals and while there are many things we disagree on, we're still discussing with a party that wants the best for Israel. When a party is trying to do what is absolutely worst for Israel, in order to undermine the country, it goes beyond what's tolerable in a democracy. Such a party shouldn't have the right to sit in the government.

IPS: If you exclude the Arab parties from the elections, one-fifth of the population of Israel will not be able to represented in the Knesset. Isn't your initiative itself a direct assault on Israeli democracy? DH: The High Court has repeatedly said exactly what you have just said. And yes, there's a good chance that they will allow those parties to run again. Because they feel Israeli Arabs deserve some kind of representation. They are welcome to vote for any Zionist party they want. Yisrael Beitenu, Kadima, Likud, as well as Labour and Meretz are all fielding non-Jewish candidates. And again, we don't want to prevent them from voting for their own interest, but their interest cannot be to undermine the very foundation of the country.

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