Sunday 1 February 2009

Democratic Dilemma

The recent decision by the Israeli Central Election Commission to ban two Arab Israeli political parties from participating in the upcoming general election, and the subsequent decision by the Israeli High Court of Justice to overturn this ban has brought into sharp focus the participation of Israeli Arabs in Israel's democracy.

In 1948 when the State of Israel was declared, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion appealed to the Arab residents living within the borders of the newly established country to join the new democracy. In the event, less than half of the Arabs took up on the offer. A total of 650,000 Arabs took up on the offer of citizenship in 1948, whilst a further 750,000 fled Israel to Arab countries neighbouring Israel. Many continue to be housed in refugee camps in those countries to this day. Those that remained were granted Israeli citizenship together with the rights that arise out of citizenship, amongst them the rights to vote in elections and to be a representative in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.

In 1948, the Arabs made up approximately one third of the population. Today, after significant growth in Arab numbers but also huge Jewish immigration, Arabs comprise approximately 20% of the population. Despite this fact, and despite the fact that the Proportional Representation method of parliamentary representation used in Israel is acknowledged to favour minorities, the Arab parties managed to secure only 8 Knesset seats in the current session representing less than 7% of the 120 seats available. This is attributed to low voter turnout by Arab voters, and to the fact that some Arab voters choose to vote for (and represent) left-wing Jewish parties. Ironically, some recent reports predict that Arab parties will not be represented in the next Knesset at all due to voter apathy in the Arab sector.

All of this is evidence of democracy running its course in a democratic country. But, to what extent should a democracy be obliged to protect freedom of speech and action. Most supporters of democracy would argue that freedom of speech is an important pillar of of any democratic country. This may be true. But what happens when this democracy begins to cross the boundary, and citizens begin to abuse their democratic rights against the interests of their home country?

Israel continues to find itself in the midst of a war against the Arab nations. With the exception of Egypt and Jordan with whom Israel has signed peace treaties, Israel does not have diplomatic relations with the Arab nations and finds itself at war or under severe threat from many of them.
Whilst this is ongoing, the Arab citizens of Israel show support, both moral and actual, for Israel's enemies. One such example is Ahmed Tibi, Arab member of the Knesset for the Ta'al party, who describes his nationality as Arab-Palestinian. He is a former advisor to Yassir Arafat and finds it acceptable to visit and support nations that are at war with Israel. Another example is Azmi Bishara who was forced to resign his Knesset seat in April 2007 after being accused of treason following numerous visits to Syria, and expressing open support for Hezobllah. He has chosen to remain abroad since resigning his seat, and has not been brought to trial in Israel.

Many Israeli Arabs on the street have assisted Palestinian terrorists in their quest to kill and maim Israelis in their attempts to destroy the State of Israel. Some of them, like the recent tractor killers in Jerusalem, have initiated acts of terrorism against Jewish Israelis. The Oxford English dictionary defines treason as "the crime of betraying one’s country, especially by attempting to kill or overthrow the sovereign or government". It is my view that these acts on the part of Israeli Arabs are undoubtedly acts of treason. Even more so, the behaviour of the Knesset members who use their parliamentary immunity to further the cause of enemy nations.

Time has come to insist that citizens of Israel behave in a manner that is loyal to the country which provides them a home, or be denied citizenship. There can be nothing more democratic than this. We need to start with the Arab members of the Knesset and continue with all Arab citizens of Israel who are suspected of betraying their homeland. The rights and benefits that they enjoy as citizens are indelibly linked to allegiance to Israel. This is neatly captured in a slogan coined for the upcoming election by Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu Party - "without loyalty, there is no citizenship". People who are unable to pledge this, should be excluded. Jews around the world have found ways to support Israel as well as show allegiance to their home countries. If Arab Israelis cannot do this, they commit treason and should suffer the consequences.

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