Balad (political party)
|Preceded by||Progressive List for Peace|
|Politics of Israel
Balad (Hebrew: בָּלַ"ד, an acronym for Brit Le'umit Demokratit (Hebrew: בְּרִית לְאוּמִּית דֶּמוֹקְרָטִית, lit. National Democratic Assembly); Arabic: التجمع الوطني الديمقراطي, at-Tajamuʿ al-Waṭanī ad-Dīmūqraṭī or بلد, lit. Country or Nation) is an Israeli Arab political party in Israel led by Jamal Zahalka. It is sometimes called the "National Democratic Alliance".
Balad is a political party whose stated purpose is the "struggle to transform the state of Israel into a democracy for all its citizens, irrespective of national or ethnic identity". It opposes the idea of Israel as a solely Jewish state, and supports its recasting as a binational state.
Balad also advocates that the state of Israel recognize Palestinian Arabs as a national minority, entitled to all rights that come with that status including autonomy in education, culture and media. Since the party's formation, it has objected to every proposed state budget on the grounds that they have discriminated against the Arab population.
The party supports creation of two states based on pre-1967 borders, with the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem to constitute a Palestinian state and the implementation of UN Resolution 194 regarding the right of return to Palestinian refugees.
Balad describes itself as a "democratic progressive national party for the Palestinian citizens of Israel".
Balad was formed and registered as a political party in 1995, by a group of young Israeli Arab intellectuals headed by Azmi Bishara. In the 1999 elections, Balad ran on a joint ticket with Ta'al, headed by MK Ahmad Tibi. They won two seats. However, a request was submitted that same year for the list to disband, and did so after the Knesset approved the request. Bishara remained its only member.
In 2001 party leader Azmi Bishara gave a speech in Umm al-Fahm on the 33rd anniversary of Israel's victory in the Six-Day War, deploring it, and later visited Syria and gave a speech mourning the death of Syria's President, Hafez al-Assad a year before, and expressing solidarity with Syria's and Hezbollah's fight against Israel. Upon his return to Israel, parliamentary immunity was removed from him by a vote of the Israeli Knesset, and in 2002 he was charged and indicted for supporting terrorist organizations against Israel and siding with her enemies, and also for violating Israel's Emergency Regulations in that he knowingly assisted Israeli citizens to enter Syria without approval of the Minister of Interior. The trial was however cancelled, after The High Court of Justice ruled in favor of a petition submitted by Bishara where he protested that his speeches were protected by legal immunity, which is granted to all Knesset members in order to allow them to fulfill their duties. His parliamentary immunity was immediately restored.
Prior to the 2003 elections, the Central Elections Committee banned the party from running by a one-vote margin, claiming it did not respect Israel's legally-mandated status as a Jewish state and that its leader supported terrorism. The move to ban Balad was initiated by Michael Kleiner, the leader of the right-wing Herut party, who alleged that Balad was "a cover-up for illegal activity" and that it "supports terror organizations, identifies with the enemy and acts against Israel as a Jewish and democratic state." The Gush Shalom activist group criticized the decision saying it introduced into the committee the "aggressive, predatory and racist attitudes of the majority of the extreme right" who they believe favor banning all Arab MKs. Bishara personally responded to the Election Committee's charges that he supported Hezbollah by saying, "I believe that a people living under occupation [have] the right to fight against it, but I never called on the Palestinians to embark on an armed struggle against Israel. I never supported violent activity." The Elections Committee had also voted to ban Ahmad Tibi of the Ta'al party who had formed an electoral alliance with the left wing Hadash coalition.
However, the bans on both parties were overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court. Supreme Court Justice Misha'el Kheshin told the election committee that Bishara's past expressions of support for Hezbollah in Lebanon had angered him, although he voted to allow him to run in the elections because "Israel's democracy is strong and can tolerate irregular cases", and thought that there was insufficient evidence for the ban. Balad won three seats in the elections, filled by Bishara, Wasil Taha, and Jamal Zahalka.
In the 2006 elections Balad won three seats, which were taken by Bishara, Taha, and Zahalka. However, more controversy was to come when, after the 2006 Lebanon War, all three visited Syria and Lebanon in September 2006 and expressed solidarity for Hezbollah in its fight against Israel. Particularly strong statements were made by Bishara. They returned to Israel on 16 September, saying they planned to return to Syria again "if necessary". A police investigation was launched into their activities in enemy territories.
Following this, Bishara was charged anew with supporting terrorism against Israelis, to which was added the charge of treason and various other criminal charges including receiving large sums of money from a foreign agent in return for his services, and money laundering. Although he promised to return from a few days' trip abroad to continue questioning by the authorities, after several weeks in other Arab states he instead resigned from the Knesset at the Israeli Embassy in Cairo on 22 April 2007. Bishara denied the charges but did not return to Israel to face court proceedings. He was said to be "considering staying abroad because he feared a long term jail sentence and an end to his political career." Bishara was replaced in the Knesset by Said Nafa. Abroad, Bishara actively promoted political charges of "apartheid" against Israel in various Arab and Western venues, travelling widely. Nevertheless, he continued to accept Israeli pension payments made to former Knesset members for nearly four years, until, in February 2011, the Knesset passed a bill revoking pensions for lawmakers who have evaded an investigation or trial for serious offenses.
On 12 January 2009, Balad was disqualified from the 2009 Israeli elections by the Central Elections Committee by a vote of 26 to 3, with one abstention. It was disqualified on grounds that it does not recognize the State of Israel and calls for armed conflict against it. Zahalka argued that the decision was related to Operation Cast Lead, and said that he is not surprised by it "because the vote was taken for political motives due to the war atmosphere... The committee members sought to increase their popularity at our expense on the backdrop of the elections". On 19 January Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, said that he saw no grounds to prevent the Balad from taking part in the election, and noted that the decision was based on "flimsy evidence". On 21 January the Supreme Court of Israel overturned the Committee's decision by a majority of eight to one. Zahalka said: "Balad stands by its platform. The court's decision is a victory to the Arab public and to anyone who seeks democracy.... We call on everyone to back the notion of 'a people state' and a life of equality bar discrimination." Balad maintained its three seats in the Knesset after the 2009 elections.
Comments on Iran
Haneen Zoabi, a Balad Knesset member, said in March 2009 that she was not worried about the prospect of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. Instead she suggested that a nuclear-armed Iran would act as a counter-power to Israel. Zoabi also welcomed Iran's growing influence on Palestinian affairs, saying that Iran has played a more beneficial role in region than Jordan and Egypt because it stood more firmly "against occupation than a lot of the Arab countries". Balad's chairman, Jamal Zahalka, said that Zoabi's comments represented an "analysis", not a "position", and did not constitute "supporting a nuclear weapon in Iran".
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