Beyond Images Challenging myths and presenting facts about Israel 
The High Court and leading Israeli Arab Politicians

London - published on 9 July 2003
Beyond Images Ref: 53

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Israel as an "apartheid state"?

It is sometimes claimed by Israel's critics that Israel is an apartheid state: that it discriminates racially against Arabs, and denies them any rights.

A clear demonstration that this claim is wrong came in January 2003, with the decision of the Israeli High Court in favour of two Israeli Arab politicians who challenged the ruling of Israel's Central Election Committee (CEC) disqualifying them from running in the Israeli general election. This Briefing describes the episode and lessons learnt.

Israel's Law on the Conduct of Members of the Israeli Parliament

In May 2002, the Israeli Parliament (Knesset) passed a new law barring candidates for running for election to the Knesset if "their aims or actions, whether explicitly or by inference, include support for armed struggle by a hostile state or terrorist organisation against the State of Israel". Other parts of the same law already permitted the disqualification of candidates or parties which support the rejection of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, or "incitement to racism".

Ahmed Tibi and Azmi Bishara – two outspoken Arab voices in Israel

Two radical Arab members of the Knesset were disqualified by the CEC from standing for the 2003 election on the basis of this new law.

Bishara had made a series of "inflammatory" statements about the Palestinian intifada since September 2000, and delivered a speech in Syria in which he allegedly praised the "victory" of Iranian-backed Hizbullah over Israel in South Lebanon.

Tibi had a record going back several years of expressing strong sympathy for Palestinian terrorism. He took part in the funeral in Ramallah of a Hamas mastermind and reportedly expressed admiration for the way in which Palestinian terrorists in Jenin had fought against Israeli soldiers.

The MKs' Appeal to the Israeli High Court

Tibi and Bishara both challenged the decision of the CEC through the Israeli Courts (in proceedings which also dealt with the CEC's disqualification of certain far-right candidates).

A special 11-member panel of the High Court was convened, headed by Israel's Supreme Court President and Deputy President, and nine other senior judges.

The Court unanimously overturned the CEC's disqualification of Tibi, and by a majority of 7-4 overturned the CEC's disqualification of Bishara. Each was permitted to rejoin the election campaign.

The Court rulings were criticised by many politicians in Israel, but greeted as "significant and important" by a leading Arab spokesman. A month later, in February 2003, Tibi and Bishara won Knesset seats in the Israeli general election.


This episode is a reminder that Israel's Arabs have access to the highest courts of Israel, which apply the law fairly and without discrimination, regardless of the political climate.

Whatever opinion you take about the political views and conduct of Ahmed Tibi and Azmi Bishara, their reinstatement by the High Court to Israel's election campaign teaches a significant lesson.

Such an episode could never have happened in an apartheid state. Not only does the incident demonstrate that Israel is not an "apartheid state", but it also shows that Israel maintains the standards of an advanced liberal democracy.