The party lists for the Arab parties Balad and United Arab List-Ta'al have been disqualified from running in Israel's upcoming elections in February, the country's Central Elections Committee ruled Monday, following a heated meeting.
Balad was disqualified by a vote of 26 to three, with one abstention, while 21 committee members voted in favor of disqualifying the United Arab List-Ta'al, with eight members voting against and two members abstaining. The Central Elections Committee is comprised of members of all party factions.
During the meeting, MK Ahmad Tibi (UAL-Ta'al) addressed the ongoing operation in Gaza, saying, "we object to targeting civilians and you are committing genocide in Gaza. You're murdering children."
MK David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu) responded by saying, "We thought you were a friend of Israel and therefore we didn't question your party list. Where were you for the past eight years when Sderot was under attack?"
Representatives of the Arab parties walked out of the committee meeting when a vote in favor of their disqualification appeared imminent. Shortly afterwards, there was a heated confrontation between Tibi, along with Balad Chairman Jamal Zahalka on one side, and MK David Tal (Kadima).
"You drink Palestinian blood. You are a racist," Zahalka said to Tal. "You went to war as an elections campaign strategy," added Tibi. "Every vote for Kadima is a bullet in the chest of a Palestinian child."
Tibi later told the press in response to the decision that "this is a racist country. We are accustomed to these types of struggles and we will win." Tibi had expected the support of the eight Kadima members of the committee.
"This decision strives for a Knesset without Arabs that will only lead to the increased solidarity between the Arab public and its leadership," he added.
Zahalka likewise said that he is not surprised by the decision "because the vote was taken for political motives due to the war atmosphere... The committee members sought to increase their popularity at our expense on the backdrop of the elections."
"Labor representatives bent to pressure that was exerted on (Defense Minister and party chairman) Ehud Barak," Zahalka claimed.
MKs Zahalka (L) and Tibi during meeting (Photo: Dudi Vaaknin)
On the other side of the spectrum, Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman MK Avigdor Lieberman said, "Now that it has been decided that the Balad terrorist organization will not be able to run, the first battle is over."
Lieberman added, "The next battle is making Balad illegal because it is a terrorist organization whose objective is harming the State of Israel."
Yisrael Beiteinu is one of three separate parties that petitioned the Central Elections Committee over the past several weeks to disqualify Balad, the others being the Jewish Home party and Itay Furman, a former member of the Shinui party.
A test for the High Court
All three motions claimed that Balad must be disqualified on grounds that it does not recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland, and that it advocates an armed conflict against it. Israel's High Court of Justice, in the past, has overturned votes to disqualify Balad from national elections that were based on similar grounds.
"The High Court of Justice is the body to make a final decision. We're used to these types of struggles and used to winning them and I'm sure the decision by the Central Elections Committee will only increase solidarity for the Arab parties," Tibi said.
As of Sunday night, Balad had not decided whether it would appeal to the High Court, but did threaten to boycott elections if the decision is not overturned.
"If Balad, at the end of the day, is disqualified, it will create a deep rift between the State and the Arab population," a party representative said.
Labor Secretary-General Eitan Cabel told Ynet that the party had not planned on voting in favor of Balad's disqualification, but the fact that Zahalka "sat there and said the party was in daily contact with Azmi Bishara" made him change his mind.
"Labor's conduct in this affair was patriotic," he added, "we had to make a statement that the Balad heads cannot be permitted to incite against Israeli democracy and act against it."
Meretz MK Zahava Gal-On slammed Labor and Kadima for backing the disqualification, saying the parties were "conducting their election campaign not only on the backs of the Palestinians in Gaza, but also on the backs of the Israeli-Arabs. This is cheap politics."
The HaBayit HaYehudi party responded to the election committee's decision by saying, "We hope that the High Court justices have learned the lessons from the Bishara episode and won't overturn the election committee's decision because this will aid Hamas and Hizbullah open a branch in the Knesset," said the party.
The Yesha rabbinical council praised the decision, saying, "The parties are a fifth column in the State of Israel." The council also said that disqualifying the parties is not sufficient and that "the right to vote must be denied to all those supporting terror against the Jewish people."
Sharon Roffe-Ofir, Efrat Weiss, and Kobi Nahshoni contributed to this report