Analysis

The Knesset's Latest Attempt to Disenfranchise Israeli Arabs

The bill which allows 90 MKs to suspend their fellow lawmakers from parliament is yet another attempt to impose tyranny of the majority.

MK Haneen Zoabi being removed from the podium at the Knesset, February 8, 2016.
Emil Salman

The bill by which lawmakers could be suspended from the Knesset by a majority vote of 90 members is another phase in the Knesset’s years-long efforts to eject Arab MKs who support the Palestinian struggle against the occupation.

If the Basic Law on the Knesset once included the possibility of eliminating a faction that negates the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, since 2002, in the context of the second intifada, a number of broad amendments were passed to try to block representation of part of the Arab public.

The first pretext inserted in the law allowed for election slates to be disqualified due to their “support for an armed struggle by an enemy country or terror organization against the State of Israel.” At the same time, the possibility of disqualification was expanded to include not only entire slates but also individual candidates. In 2008, the latitude for disqualification was widened further with the proviso that a candidate who visited an enemy country for seven years before his party’s slate was presented would be considered to have supported armed struggle against Israel until proven otherwise.

Despite these additions, the Supreme Court refused to approve decisions by the Central Election Committee that in one case disqualified the entire Balad faction, and in other cases disqualified MK Haneen Zoabi from running for the Knesset. The more the Knesset tried to expand the law, the more the court restricted it. The Supreme Court stressed that disqualifying a candidate or a party slate is a drastic step that must be invoked only as a last resort. It ruled that a slate or candidate could be disqualified only if the “core” elements of the cause for disqualification were violated; that is, if they were the main goal of the slate or the individual candidate, and if the slate or candidate were working actively to achieve those goals and if there were unequivocal proof of this.

It might be said that in the context of problematic legislation whose purpose, behind words that sound right on paper, was to silence parties that expressed support for Palestinian opposition to the occupation, the Supreme Court’s rulings repeatedly saved the Central Election Committee from itself. For example, the committee sought to disqualify Zoabi from running for the Knesset after she took part in the Mavi Marmara flotilla to Gaza, although the attorney general found no proof that Zoabi had broken the law or committed violence. In that case it was clear that the committee was disqualifying her because of political opposition to her actions and positions, not for justified reasons even in the framework of the expanded law that allowed for a candidate’s invalidation. In fact, because disqualifying candidates from running for the Knesset strikes a blow at the core of the most basic tenet of democracy, the Supreme Court ruling saved this core.

Against this backdrop, the Knesset now wants to take upon itself the power to oust or at least suspend an elected MK. The idea that this is analogous to the possibility of ousting a president who has committed an offense is baseless. Ousting or suspending an elected official by his or her colleagues in the legislature, not due to conviction for a crime but because of political beliefs, would be an extreme example of the tyranny of the majority. Not that we don’t have enough of this among us already. The Ethics Committee’s decision to impose sanctions on the Balad MKs is an example connected of course to that exact matter and shows which way the wind is blowing.

According to the Balad MKs’ political beliefs, it is proper for them to meet with the parents of those whose bodies are being held by the security authorities, even if these are the bodies of murderers, for the humanitarian goal of returning the bodies for burial. But most of Israeli public opinion finds it difficult today to accept such a meeting, in which a memorial was also held for those Palestinians whose bodies Israel is holding. But the matter does not end with the idea that anyone who doesn’t agree with Balad’s representatives criticizes the party’s actions. Rather, the opposition has been turned into exploitation of the Knesset Ethics Committee for political ends and a bill that will allow the suspension of MKs whose goal is clearly to keep Balad MKs out of the Knesset.

All of this shows how unstable the concept of democracy is in Israel. The current bill, if it passes, would be another nail in democracy’s coffin. MKs are reportedly hoping that as opposed to the instance of disqualifying a Knesset slate, the Supreme Court will find it difficult to intervene in the suspension of a Knesset member by a vote of 90 of his or her peers.

We cannot know how the court will rule if and when the issue comes before it, but neither can we rely repeatedly on the Supreme Court to pull Israeli democracy’s chestnuts out of the fire. The Supreme Court has so far had to strike down Central Election Committee decisions because they are the outcome of a combination of anti-democratic legislation that from the outset was meant to persecute Arab MKs, together with politicians who are willing in the name of such persecution to crush any concept of democracy. The current bill is another example of this lethal combination.