High Court Sides With Israeli Arabs

From Associated Press

Israel's Supreme Court restored the candidacy of two Arab legislators in a ruling Thursday, overturning a ban that had threatened to bring a tidal wave of resentment from Israel's large Arab minority.

The high court ruling was rendered by 11 justices, a number usually reserved for landmark cases. The court overturned a decision two weeks ago by the Central Election Commission to disqualify Arab legislators Azmi Bishara and Ahmed Tibi on grounds they sided with Israel's enemies.

The court ruled unanimously on Tibi and 7 to 4 on Bishara. The judges' arguments were not immediately released.

Bishara hailed the decision as a victory for Israeli democracy and said it would reassure the country's Arab citizens.

"Arabs in Israel will have a feeling they are not orphans of Israeli democracy, they are citizens of Israel," he said.

The legislator said he expected a high turnout by Arab voters in the upcoming election and that this could hurt Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's chances of forming a new government. A strong showing by Arab parties could deprive Israel's right wing, including Sharon's Likud Party, of a majority in parliament.

Many of Israel's 1.2 million Arab citizens -- more than a sixth of the population -- saw the case as a watershed in their troubled relations with the Jewish majority. Israeli Arabs have long complained of discrimination by Israeli governments, and the disqualification of Bishara and Tibi was seen as an attempt to quiet the Arab voice.

The Central Election Commission had accused Bishara of inciting violence against Israel, including during a trip to Syria where he praised Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas. It accused Tibi, a former advisor to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, of supporting terrorist organizations. Both legislators denied the charges, saying they oppose violence.

In other decisions, the high court upheld the candidacy of Baruch Marzel, a Jewish extremist who was once a leading figure in Kach, a movement founded by U.S.-born Rabbi Meir Kahane and later outlawed as racist.

The court also disqualified the candidacy of Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, saying he had not been out of the army long enough. Mofaz is a former army chief of staff.

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