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Israeli Supreme Court Overturns Ban Barring Arab Candidates from Elections - 2003-01-09

Israel's Supreme Court Thursday overturned a ban barring two Israeli-Arab members of parliament from running to keep their seats in the January 28 elections.

The justices voted to uphold the disqualification of Shaul Mofaz and reverse that of Ahmed Tibi and Azmi Bishara.

Ahmed Tibi said he was extremely pleased with the decision and praised the court for blocking, what he termed, the anti-democratic avalanche of the right wing.

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

There had been concern that if the original ban imposed by the Israeli election commission remained in effect, many in the Israeli-Arab community would have boycotted the election. Mr. Bishara said he now expects a high turnout of Arab voters on election day.

In a separate decision, the court rejected a petition by current Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz to be allowed to run for parliament as a member of the Likud party. It ruled that a mandatory six month cooling off period since his retirement from the army last summer has not expired and that he is, therefore, disqualified from running for office.

The decision will not necessarily mean Mr. Mofaz will not be part of the government. Cabinet members are not required to be members of parliament and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said he wants Mr. Mofaz to continue in his current position.

Meanwhile, opinion polls published Thursday show Mr. Sharon's Likud party leading its nearest rival Labor. But a corruption scandal involving Likud and Mr. Sharon has narrowed the margin and he no longer seems certain to win re-election.

Under Israel's electoral system, voters cast ballots for parties, not individuals. The leader of the party with the most votes is most likely to become prime minister.