Israeli Arab Lawmaker to Quit Knesset in Case of Plea Bargain, Says Deputy AG

Knesset discusses unseating MK Basel Ghattas following a draft indictment against him on charges of smuggling cellphones to Palestinian security prisoners.

MK Basel Ghattas of the Joint List appears in the Magistrate's Court over suspicions that he smuggled cell phones to Palestinian prisoners, January 5, 2017.
Ilan Assayag

The Knesset House Committee held its first discussion on a request by 71 lawmakers to unseat MK Basel Ghattas (Joint List) on Tuesday, following a draft indictment issued against him on charges of smuggling cellphones to Palestinian security prisoners.

This was the first discussion of the ousting of a sitting lawmaker since the law allowing such a step passed last summer.

The committee postponed voting until next Monday. If it votes to unseat Ghattas, the matter will then be brought before the entire Knesset, where a majority of 90 MKs in favor is required to have him removed.

Ghattas did not attend the committee meeting or send representatives.

Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri presented the committee the principles of a plea bargain in the works, as part of which Ghattas will resign from the Knesset and be charged with crimes including breaking the anti-terror law. Nizri added that according to the plea bargain, Ghattas will confess, receive a significant prison sentence and pay a fine.

Ghattas was videotaped in mid-December passing envelopes to the inmates during a visit to Ketziot Prison. One of the prisoners, Walid Daka, is serving a life sentence for his involvement, as a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, in the 1984 kidnapping and murder of IDF soldier Moshe Tamam. Basel Suliman Bazrah, is serving 15 years for security offenses related to terrorism.

The draft indictment says Daqqa’s brother, Assad Daqqa, handed Ghattas four packages containing 12 cellphones, 16 SIM cards and other communications equipment, for Ghattas to smuggle into the prison, at a meetup on the Trans-Israel Highway. Ghattas hid the packages inside his shirt along with documents when he visited the prison. A metal detector went off as he entered the prison ground, but he told the guard that his belt had set off the detector. He refused to remove it and pass through a second time, saying that because of his parliamentary immunity he could not be searched. At the prison he met with Daqqa, the prisoner, handed him the documents, and later met with Bazrah, and handed him the cellphones and the other equipment.

Nizri evaded a question put to him by MKs Revital Swid and Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin (Zionist Union) as to whether the Knesset also has the authority to oust Ghattas based on the security offenses attributed to him.

Sources in the opposition said that the law allowing for the ousting of an MK might not be relevant in Ghattas’ case and that the state prosecution prefers not to say so at this point so that Ghattas will sign the agreement and resign, knowing that the Knesset might vote to oust him.

According to Nizri, Ghattas’ attorneys will have to decide by Thursday whether or not to sign the agreement. If they do, Ghattas will have to resign when he is indicted, which is likely to happen on Sunday. “From our point of view this conviction will carry moral turpitude the moment there is moral turpitude, certain rights will be taken from him and that will impact his ability to be elected to office for seven years,” said Nizri.

Knesset House Committee chairman MK Yoav Kish (Likud) said at the start of the meeting that there are many differences between MKs from the Joint List’s Balad component – which Ghattas belongs to – and its other components. “I belong to the right wing and I think we may have made a mistake to raise the voter threshold. We created a distortion around the various interests in the Joint List,” Kish said. "I speak to members of the Joint List: There is a great deal of difference and little in common, we must not generalize,” he added.

Kish added that over the years, members of Balad, like Azmi Bishara and Said Nafa, have identified with Palestinian murderers. “Unfortunately the extremists are the ones defining the line the party follows,” Kish said, adding: “Ghattas is leading the Joint List’s cockpit toward a crash.”

Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon told the committee that they would be authorized to discuss ousting Ghattas if they were convinced that he supported a terror organization working against Israel, although his trial has not yet started. Yinon called on the lawmakers to take into consideration that a final indictment will not include serious security offenses, that the court might find Ghattas not guilty of security offenses attributed to him, and that the trial could end only after he had already been unseated.

Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin, who submitted the request to discuss Ghattas’ dismissal and collected the 71 signatures allowing the process to begin, said: “We believe that there is certainly suitable cause here, support for an armed struggle by an enemy state against the State of Israel.”

Elkin said that until Ghattas signed a plea bargain, the MKs would refer to the draft indictment, from which he read charges that included endangering human life, causing serious bodily injury, harming state security and abetting a terror organization, among others. “If these are not examples of clause 7a, I don’t know what are,” Elkin added, referring to the clause in the law allowing for the ousting of an MK for supporting a terror organization.

Elkin said Ghattas had not appointed another lawmaker to represent him at the committee meeting because “he knows deep down that those MKs who protect him here would come and vote against him in the Knesset.”

Ghattas submitted a letter to the committee Monday, asking for a postponement because the plea bargain is currently being negotiated and is close to being signed. According to the letter, submitted by attorneys Hassan Jabareen and Nadeem Shehadeh of the Adalah legal rights center, “the fact that the process is taking place without considering relevant past judicial rulings or waiting for the hearing and negotiations between Ghattas and the state prosecution, and even before an indictment or a final draft indictment has been formulated, clearly shows that the process is tainted by a lack of good faith and extraneous considerations.”