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 Thursday, 9 January, 2003, 11:29 GMT
Poll ban on Arab Israelis lifted
Arab Israeli legislator Azmi Bishara
Azmi Bishara predicted an increased Arab voter turnout
Israel's Supreme Court has overturned a ban on two Arab legislators standing in this month's general election.

Azmi Bishara and Ahmed Tibi had been accused by the election commission of supporting Palestinian attacks.

Ahmed Tibi
Ahmed Tibi's disqualification was overruled unanimously
Correspondents say the case was being seen as a watershed for many of Israel's 1.2 million Arab citizens.

Meanwhile, newspaper polls indicate support is falling for the ruling Likud Party of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon which has been hit by corruption allegations.

The court also upheld a decision that a Jewish extremist, Baruch Marzel, may stand in the polls.

But an 11-judge panel - an unusual composition usually reserved for landmark rulings - backed a ban on Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz.

He has not been out of the army for the required six months.

Right-wing decision

The original bans were imposed by the election commission, which comprises a judge and representatives from each of the parties with members in the Knesset.

The affair produced a challenge for the Arab voters to raise the number of Arab representatives in the parliament

Azmi Bishara
Its right-wing majority also tried to stop Mr Bishara's Balad party from being involved in the elections.

Mr Bishara and Mr Tibi were disqualified two weeks ago on the grounds that they backed violence against Israel.

Both legislators denied the charges, saying they opposed violence but had the right to criticise Israeli Government policy.

After the decision, Mr Bishara said he was relieved that the court had stopped what he called the commission's attack on democracy.

He told the BBC it was important for Arab Israelis - who make up about 17% of Israel's electorate - to be represented in the Knesset.

Troubled relations

The row over Mr Tibi's and his candidacies could even increase turnout among Arab Israelis, Mr Bishara said.

"I think [the outcome] will produce a dynamic of more and more Arabs coming to vote," he said.

"The affair produced a challenge for the Arab voters to raise the number of Arab representatives in the parliament."

People demonstrate in favour of Ahmed Tibi's candidacy
Both Arabs and Jews protested against the candidates' ban
The BBC's Barbara Plett in Jerusalem says the threatened exclusion from polls of the legislators was seen by Arab Israelis as an ominous sign in their already troubled relations with the Jewish majority.

Members of the Jewish left had also protested against what they called an erosion of political rights.

The judges voted unanimously to overturn the disqualification of Mr Tibi, and rendered a split decision, 7-4, in the case of Mr Bishara.

They issued written verdicts though the arguments accepted may be available later.

'Despicable libel'

New opinion polls in the Israeli press have reflected an apparent weakening in support for Mr Sharon.

One survey by the Ha'aretz newspaper suggests his Likud Party will win just 27 parliamentary seats in the election, down from about 40 at the start of the campaign.

POLL PREDICTIONS
Ha'aretz
Likud: 27 seats
Labour: 24 seats
Yedioth Ahronoth
Likud: 28 seats
Maariv
Likud: 30 seats

But Mr Sharon is still seen as likely to be able to form a right-wing coalition government after the election.

The opinion polls come after allegations that Mr Sharon and his sons received $1.5m in improper loans.

The prime minister is expected to address the claims - which he has denounced as "despicable political libel" - on Thursday.

Last month there were claims that party members paid bribes for votes in a December primary.

Likud's campaign manager Ehud Olmert told Israel Army Radio that the scandals were hurting the party.

"There is no doubt that the events of the last two weeks have worked to the Likud's detriment," he said.

  WATCH/LISTEN
  ON THIS STORY
  Azmi Bishara, Arab Israeli Knesset member
"This is an important achievement"
  The BBC's Barbara Plett reports from Jerusalem
"The system views the two Arab legislators as a threat"
  The BBC's Liz Rowley
"Azmi Bishari says he doesn't believe there is cause to feel victorious"

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