The 1999 Israeli Elections: Defending the Political Rights of the Palestinian Minority in Israel


In late 1998, following the signing of the Wye Plantation Accords, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud-led government lost a vote of no confidence in the Knesset. The Knesset was dissolved and early national elections were called for 17 May 1999. 

In March 1999, MK Dr. Azmi Bishara, leader of the Tajamoah (National Democratic) Party, became the first Arab citizen to run for Prime Minister of Israel. Two days before the elections, Dr. Bishara withdrew his candidacy for a variety of reasons. Mr. Barak received 56% of the vote, soundly defeating Prime Minister Netanyahu with 43% of the vote and achieving one of the largest margins of victory in Israeli election history. With 75% of the Arab eligible voters going to the polls, 95% cast their ballots for Mr. Barak, although he made no promises to the Arab parties on issues of equality, non-discrimination, budgets and other pressing matters nor did he seek to negotiate with them to join the government coalition. 

As in 1996, a majority of the Arab electorate cast their ballots for Arab non-Zionist parties running for the Knesset. Three Arab parties won seats in the 120-member Knesset in 1999: the United Arab List (a coalition of the Democratic Arab Party, the National United Front, and the southern branch of the Islamic Movement) took five seats; the Jebha (Communist) Party received three seats; and the Tajamoah (National Democratic) Party secured two seats. 

During the campaign period for the 1999 elections, Adalah took legal action to defend the political rights of the Arab minority. The legal issues involved included language rights, the freedom of expression, and the right of the Arab minority to participate in political processes. 

Public Announcements Regarding New Political Parties

In February 1999, Adalah filed a petition to the Supreme Court against the Registrar of Political Parties, in its own name and on behalf of an Arab woman who does not read the Hebrew press, challenging the Registrar’s practice of publishing announcements regarding the registration and platforms of new political parties in Hebrew newspapers only. The petition followed the Registrar’s rejection of a request by Al-Ittihad, Israel’s only daily Arabic newspaper (run by the Communist Party), to publish the announcements. The Registrar told Al-Ittihad that announcements were published exclusively in Hebrew since the enactment of the Law of Political Parties (1992); that the only consideration in placing announcements was that of publicity; and that all citizens are eventually informed of registrations since new parties receive coverage in the Hebrew and Arabic media. 

Adalah’s petition contended that the Registrar’s practice violated laws providing that Arabic is an official language of the state and infringed on the right of freedom of information and the right of political participation of citizens who do not read the Hebrew press. In response to Adalah’s petition, the Attorney General stated that the Registrar would henceforth publish all announcements in Arabic, though the law does not explicitly require him to do so. The Court declined to compel the Registrar to republish all previous announcements in Arabic. 

Preventing the Disqualification of MK Dr. Azmi Bishara and the Tajamoah Party

Two extreme right-wing activists submitted petitions to the Central Election Committee (CEC) requesting the disqualification of Prime Minister candidate MK Dr. Azmi Bishara and his list from the elections. The petitions contended that Dr. Bishara violated Section 7A of The Basic Law: The Knesset, a 1985 amendment which provides that candidates shall be disqualified for aims or actions that indicate a “denial of the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people.” The petitioners’ claims relied primarily on Dr. Bishara’s statements in an interview published 29 May 1998, that Israel should be a “state of all its citizens” and that the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the establishment of a bi-national state encompassing both today’s Israel and the Occupied Territories. 

In response, Adalah pointed out that Dr. Bishara’s statements had formed the platform of his party, since its registration and also at the time of Dr. Bishara’s election to the Knesset in 1996.  Moreover, despite previous attempts to disqualify the party, the platform in question had been approved by the Supreme Court.  Adalah contended that the CEC had no justification for revoking the party’s registration in the absence of new evidence proving the party’s platform to be illegal.  The CEC accepted Adalah’s arguments, and Dr. Bishara and the Tajamoah Party were permitted to participate in the elections. 

Censorship of Advertisements by the United Arab List

According to the Elections Law, registered political parties receive some free campaign advertising time on radio and television stations. The Commissioner of the CEC reviews all advertisements for illegal content, including racist speech and incitement to violence, and illegal material is censored.  In 1999, the Commissioner used this power to censor two television advertisements produced by the United Arab List. 

From one advertisement, which discussed violent clashes between security forces and residents of Umm al-Fahem, the Commissioner deleted a statement by MK Hashem Mahameed comparing the conduct of security officers at Umm al-Fahem to incidents of violence by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank.  From another advertisement, the Commissioner excised a statement that “The Bedouin of the Negev live in daily terror of the Black Patrol, which seeks to uproot us, to scatter us, and to expel us from our lands in order to benefit new settlers.”   The Commissioner argued that the statements were illegal as they constituted incitement to racism and a call to disobey state authority.  Furthermore, they violated the Commissioner’s explicit prohibition of any reference to soldiers or the armed forces. 

Adalah filed a petition to the Central Election Committee (CEC) protesting these acts of censorship and requesting that the deleted portions of the advertisements be replaced.  Adalah argued that the deletions and the prohibition on discussing the military infringe on citizens’ freedom of speech, damage the democratic principles of free and fair elections and the right to criticize authority, and are inconsistent with Supreme Court precedents that speech be limited through prior restraint only where there is clear evidence that such speech will hurt the public interest and endanger the public safety. Adalah contended that such evidence was absent, as MK Mahameed’s statement had been previously broadcast on television, without incident, and that the misnomer “Black Patrol” had been previously used by other commentators and public figures.  Adalah pointed out that no other party’s advertisements were censored and requested that the UAL advertisements be aired in their original forms. 

The Commissioner dismissed Adalah’s petition, stating that the deletions constituted a legitimate exercise of the discretionary authority granted him by law, and noted that while the word “soldiers” was removed, the visual images were not censored.  He further argued that the use of the term “Black Patrol” supports a reasonable suspicion of incitement to disobey, as it is a derogatory name for an official body.  

Hassan Jabareen, Adalah’s General Director, analyzed the results of the Israeli elections, particularly on the Arab community in Israel, at a luncheon briefing on 21 May 1999 at the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine (CPAP) in Washington, DC. For a summary of that lecture, see the CPAP’s website: