Israel's President Rivlin Bars Arab Lawmaker From Official Event

Israel's president denies entry to one of three legislators temporarily suspended from Knesset activities for a controversial meeting with families of slain Palestinian assailants.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin
Erica Gannett for IRL Productions

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday refused to let Arab lawmaker Jamal Zahalka attend an event with other Israeli Arab leaders at the president's residence, citing his controversial meeting with the families of slain Palestinian assailants earlier this month.

Rivlin barred Zahalka from entering the official president's residence for a reception with 67 Arab local council heads about the government's five year development plan for the Arab sector.

Zahalka was told it had been decided not to let him in following his meeting with the terrorists' families, officials said.

Tomer Appelbaum

Rivlin was quoted to have said that the lawmaker "offended public sensibilities by his meeting with terrorist families."

Sources at the president's residence said "Zahalka's action makes it difficult for us to welcome him."

The Knesset Ethics Committee on February 8 suspended Zahalka and two other members of the Joint Arab List's Balad party for two months over a public uproar for their meeting with the Palestinian families in East Jerusalem.

The lawmakers have said the meeting was held for humanitarian reasons, to facilitate the return of the remains of the slain assailants for burial.

Sources close to Rivlin said Zahalka had arrived despite being told beforehand he wouldn't be allowed in.

He left of his own accord once he understood the decision would not be changed, the sources said.

Zahalka said he had initially turned down the invitation in protest at plans to demolish Arab homes. He changed his mind when he realized the terms of the policy were still under discussion, but "was told there were no more seats available" at Rivlin's event.

Zahalka said that all the Joint List's members had cancelled their plans to participate, in response to Rivlin's step.  

He added: "I didn't know they had a shortage of chairs at the president's residence. They ought to seriously consider buying some more chairs."

The President's Residence denied that Zahalka was told that there were no available chairs, and said that the reason for barring his entry was explained to him.

More than a year ago Rivlin famously cancelled plans to host an Israeli singer, Amir Benayoun, after he published a song featuring racist lyrics against Arabs.