Israel: On the Right Side of History

The Israeli Supreme Court defended the rights of Israel's two Arab parties, Balad and the United Arab List, to stand for election, overturning a vote by Israel's Central Election Committee.
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Last week, in the midst of an election campaign, military operations, and economic crisis, nine judges affirmed their country's commitment to the rule of law and democracy. Their decision reflects their country's hopeful future.

If you're wondering why you haven't heard about this decision, it's because those nine judges weren't sitting at One First Street in Washington, DC. They were at One Shaarei Mishpat, in Jerusalem, Israel. These were the justices of Israel's Supreme Court. (Full disclosure: I clerked for Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch of the Israeli Supreme Court during the summer of 2008, although I did not work on any material related to the case discussed below).

On Thursday, President Obama signed Executive Orders that will, hopefully, end the seven-year-nightmare that is Guantanamo Bay and America's use of torture. The day before, the Israeli Supreme Court defended the rights of Israel's two Arab parties, Balad and the United Arab List (UAL), to stand for election, overturning a vote by Israel's Central Election Committee.

The Central Election Committee argued that travel by Balad and UAL party officials to avowed enemies of Israel, such as Syria and Lebanon, rendered these parties treasonous. The Committee also noted that Balad's former Chairman, Azmi Bashara, fled Israel for Syria while under investigation for treason.

Nevertheless, the Israeli Court stood firm and, at a time of military crisis, affirmed respect for law, democracy and civil liberties. The Court wisely saw the need to keep the channels of democracy open in Israel, and realized that political rights must be most carefully protected when tensions are highest.

The Israeli Court was supported in its decision by Israel's Attorney General, who argued that there was insufficient evidence to ban either party under Section 7(A) of The Basic Law: The Knesset. The last such ban was instituted in the 1980s, when the ultra-nationalist Kach, a Jewish party, was banned from Israel's elections for advocating the expulsion of all Arab's from Israel.

In the words of Balad MK Jamal Zahalkeh, Wednesday's decision was a victory for "anyone who seeks democracy." But the decision was greater than that: It was a victory for anyone, anywhere, who respects democracy, civil rights and the rule of law. The Court's decision symbolized fundamental difference between Israel and its enemies.

While Israel's Supreme Court handed down its decision, Hamas engaged in a brutal, illegal, and anti-democratic crackdown in Gaza. Hamas tortured and killed members of its rival political group, Fatah, in makeshift detention centers constructed in schools and hospitals. Many Fatah members lucky enough to escape execution or torture were shot in the legs as punishment for supposedly "collaborating" with Israel.

This contrast reaffirms the key difference between Israel and those who seek Israel's destruction: Israel is a democracy which respects the rule of law. Its Supreme Court has affirmed the right of Israel's Arab citizens to participate fully in electoral democracy. Hamas is a lawless terrorist organization which resolves its internal differences by shooting its political opposition.

This does not justify all of Israel's actions. As the Bush policies President Obama's Executive Orders seek to reverse demonstrate, even the greatest of democracies can make terrible mistakes. But, as President Obama also noted, it is the core values of a nation that are most important. The decision of Israel's Supreme Court shows Israel's firm commitment to the rule of law, civil liberties and democracy, a commitment unmatched by any of Israel's neighbors.

As for terrorist groups like Hamas, President Obama was no less direct. From the Capitol steps, he declared: "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history."

The next few weeks will undoubtedly bring prolonged investigation of Israel's military operations in Gaza. That is as it should be: Democracies are strong, and a commitment to civil rights and law means careful, searching, and difficult scrutiny of past actions.

Nevertheless, criticisms of Israel's tactics must not obscure the fundamental truth of Israel's existence: As its Supreme Court has demonstrated, Israel is a democracy which respects the rule of law and civil rights. Hamas is a terrorist organization which cares for neither.

Israel is on the right side of history.