Elections panel blocks Balad party’s run for Knesset, against AG’s advice

Anti-Zionist Arab party set to appeal to Supreme Court against Central Elections Committee disqualification; panel rejects petition seeking to ban Ra’am from running on November 1

Balad party head Sami Abu Shehadeh speaks at an Central Elections Committee meeting against disqualifying Balad from running in the upcoming elections, September 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
Balad party head Sami Abu Shehadeh speaks at an Central Elections Committee meeting against disqualifying Balad from running in the upcoming elections, September 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

The Central Elections Committee disqualified the Palestinian nationalist party Balad on Thursday from running in November’s election, accepting a petition that alleges the party undermines Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

Balad and several of its lawmakers have been disqualified by past elections panels, and have so far won every appeal to the Supreme Court to be reinstated. The party is expected to make a similar appeal to return to November’s contest following Thursday’s disqualification.

Earlier on Thursday, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara released a letter to the committee stating that there was no basis for disqualifying either Balad or the Islamist Ra’am party. The panel ultimately cleared Ra’am’s path to the ballot box, dismissing petitions that alleged the party supported terrorist organizations.

Balad is not expected to cross the electoral threshold to enter the next Knesset. If it indeed does not, the party might burn the significant number of Arab votes that are expected to go its way, and could play a potentially key role in the predicted tight electoral math between blocs. That possibility pushed political stakeholders to reconsider their approaches to Balad’s candidacy.

Whereas in the past Balad’s run has been opposed by right-wing parties, party head Sami Abou Shehadah accused Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz — whose Yesh Atid and National Unity parties, respectively, are presumably poised to gain from Balad’s ouster — as engineering the takedown.

“The attempt this time to disqualify Balad is an attempt by Gantz and Lapid to engineer an Arab leadership according to their political needs,” Abou Shehadah wrote in a statement released shortly after the committee’s decision.

Members of the Balad party speak to the media outside the election committee at the Knesset on September 15, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Before the panel convened, Gantz released a statement saying that his party’s representatives on the committee would vote to disqualify Balad.

“The Arab citizens of Israel deserve and are entitled to parliamentary representation, and even to coalition representation, but there are decisions that are above all narrow political considerations. There is no place in the Israeli Knesset for someone who operates in extremes against the state,” Gantz wrote.

By contrast, the Likud party boycotted the Central Elections Committee’s hearings on Ra’am and Balad, calling the matter a “political circus” geared towards harming its right-wing bloc.

“Today, the circus continues to try to disqualify Balad in order to kosher Ra’am, Hadash and Ta’al,” read a statement released by Likud. “The whole process is designed to save votes in the left bloc and harm the right bloc,” the Likud statement continued. “We will not participate in this show.”

Meretz MK Gaby Lasky accused Likud, which has in the past petitioned both the Central Elections Committee and the Supreme Court to disqualify Balad, of changing its position for political expedience.

Ra’am party members arrive to register their party for the upcoming elections at the Knesset, September 15, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Many of the parties that aren’t here are ones that petitioned to dismiss Balad in the past or voted in favor, but now they have a different political interest… to enable Balad to run in order to lose votes in the Arab sector, and in this way to get to the 61st seat,” Lasky said to the Central Elections Committee, in reference to the 61-seat majority needed to form a coalition in the 120-seat Knesset.

Balad split from its Arab political partners in the now dissolved Joint List, and is not predicted to meet the electoral threshold to make it into Knesset without Hadash-Ta’al. Abou Shehadah has pledged to run until the end, regardless of polling.

Knesset seats are allocated by a proportional share of votes. If Balad were to cause Arab votes to be discarded, it would proportionally grow the size of the other two blocs. As Likud is currently outpolling the outgoing coalition’s bloc, it is most poised to benefit from Balad staying in the race.

Balad and its lawmakers have been challenged at least seven times since 2003, according to data from the Israel Democracy Institute. In all of the previous challenges, the party was reinstated by the Supreme Court.

“I really don’t know why we’re here again, with Balad and several claims that were already heard in the Supreme Court,” Abou Shehadah said to the Central Elections Committee before its vote, accusing the “thought police” of attempting to nullify the “idea of equality” for which he said Balad stands.

Ahead of the committee’s ruling, the attorney general seemingly agreed with Abou Shehadah’s point that allegations against Balad were already played out in the courts, and that the party always prevailed.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, May 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

“Applying rulings by the Supreme Court regarding the disqualification of political parties shows that the petitions submitted to the Central Elections Committee lack any factual basis that would justify such a move,” Baharav-Miara wrote in a letter to the Committee before its Thursday hearing.

Because disqualification infringes upon fundamental democratic rights to elect and be elected, it is rare for a candidate or party to ultimately be barred from running — but among the blocked notables is the Jewish extremist Kahanist Kach party.

Section 7A of Basic Law: The Knesset, defines the conditions for disqualifying a candidate or party as being: if its goals or actions either explicitly or implicitly harm the state in one of the following three ways: “(1) negation of the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state; (2) incitement to racism; (3) support for armed struggle by a hostile state or by a terrorist organization against the State of Israel.”

Baharav-Miara acknowledged that Balad’s political platform could include elements that would potentially disqualify a party from running for Knesset, but said no evidence had been presented before her that indicated that the party had implemented any of those parts of its stated platform.

The petition against Balad was filed last week by an organization called Together – for a New Social Order and the relatively small and unknown Israel’s People Party. A separate petition filed by the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party failed to garner the required signatures to progress through to a panel vote.

Hadash-Ta’al members speak to the media after submitting their list for the upcoming election at the Knesset on September 15, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We submitted a request to disqualify the Balad party. It is unprecedented because this is the first time they are running separately and we can examine in depth their platform that suggests erasing Israel’s Jewish identity,” said Dov Halbertal of Together: For a New Social Order after submitting the appeal.

Until a 2015 change to electoral law necessitated Balad joining hands with other Arab political parties in the now-disbanded Joint List, Balad had run separately and been challenged by elections panels.

A representative for Together: For a New Social Order told the Central Elections Committee that Balad’s platform violates Section 7A by “negating the existence” of Israel.

Choosing Life, a forum for bereaved families, and the right-wing organization Ad Kan each filed a rejected petition to disqualify Ra’am, claiming that the party was affiliated with organizations supporting terror.

Addressing requests to disqualify Ra’am, Baharav-Miara was more decisive in her wording, saying they had no basis. In her letter to the Central Elections Committee, she said the evidence presented to her did not prove in any way that the party had provided “material support, political support or any other form of support for the activity of a terror organization,” as the appeals claimed.

Ra’am has repeatedly denied right-wing accusations that it channels money to Hamas. Party officials have defended charitable activities by the Islamic Movement in Gaza as purely humanitarian.

Ra’am’s faction director did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but a party representative told the elections panel that Ra’am does not serve interests of foreign entities.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid, center, speaks with Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas ahead of the vote on a bill to dissolve the Knesset, June 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

“When Ra’am stands for election, it stands in the name of the Arab society in Israel and for it, for fulfilling its goals. And it doesn’t fulfill goals of any party beyond the borders of the State of Israel,” the party representative said.

Hadash-Ta’al, which stands to gain votes if Balad were to remain disqualified, but also may partner again with Balad in the future, opposed the disqualification.

“Instead of sending a democratic message of fighting racism, they choose to ignore Arab society and silently agree with the discourse of incitement and harm to its representatives,” read a statement from the party.

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