Netanyahu, Coalition Party Heads Agree to Advance Bill That Could Suspend Israeli Arab MKs

AG Mendelblit's office announced that he had asked to police to gather evidence about the MKs' meeting last week with the families of terrorists.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on January 31, 2016.
AFP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached an agreement with the heads of Israel's governing coalition parties to formulate a bill that would permit the Knesset to suspend lawmakers for unbefitting behavior.

The agreement was reached in a discussion held after the cabinet's Sunday morning meeting, during which Netanyahu said that lawmakers who visit terrorists' families and observe a moment of silence in their memory should not be members of the Knesset.

The initiative came in response to a visit paid by Israeli Arab MKs Jamal Zakalka, Basel Ghattas and Haneen Zoabi, from the Joint Arab List's Balad faction, to the families of Jerusalem terrorists who were killed while carrying out attacks. The visit was part of a campaign being conducted by the families and human rights groups seeking the return of the assailants' bodies to their families. During the meeting, the MKs joined the families' representatives in observing a moment of silence. 

Following inquiries regarding the visit with office of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, including one from the prime minister, the attorney general's office announced on Sunday that he had asked the investigation and intelligence division of the Israel Police "to collect the existing factual information up to now on the matter" so that Mendelblit can evaluate and respond on the issue.

For its part, the Prime Minister's Office said that the suspension of lawmakers would require a supermajority of 90 of the Knesset's 120 legislators, the same as is currently required to suspend the president, the Knesset speaker or deputy speakers.

Members of the Joint Arab List's Balad faction accused Netanyahu of attempting to gain political capital by promoting legislation that would harm Israel's Arab minority. "Netanyahu is well aware that the meeting's purpose was to promote the release of the bodies, but he continues to distort facts and incite with false accusations."

The agreement between the heads of the coalition parties came a few hours after Netanyahu said he would promote legislation barring "anyone who acts this way" from serving in the Knesset.  The prime minister called on the opposition to support the legislation and the complaint he had filed with the Knesset's Ethics Committee against the three Arab MKs. It was highly unusual for the prime minister to file such a complaint. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein filed a complaint of his own.

Netanyahu and Edelstein also issued press releases regarding their complaints even though the committee is not required to debate complaints that have already been made public and in the past have rejected complaints that have received priority publicity. The visit by the Balad MKs generated a record 450 complaints to the Ethics Committee, including complaints filed by the families of victims of terrorism.

"Many Israeli citizens don't feel that these Knesset members represent them," Netanyahu said. "We invest great [efforts] into integrating Arab citizens in Israeli society, and they do the opposite. They build walls of hatred. I'm trying to imagine what would have happened in the British Parliament or the U.S. Congress if members would stand at attention in memory of those who had murdered British or American citizens. There would be a great outcry, and it would be justified."

The legislation that is taking shape in response to the Balad Knesset members' visit could also serve Netanyahu's interests on an additional front. If it is passed and applies to the current Knesset, it would enable the prime minister to take revenge on a Knesset member from his own Likud party, Oren Hazan. Channel 2 has broadcast allegations that Hazan managed a casino in Bulgaria and that he supplied patrons drugs and sexual services. Hazan has also come in for criticism for arguably abusive comments directed at Yesh Atid Knesset member Karin Elharrar.

This has made him persona non grata in the view of some senior Likud party officials, who may argue that Hazan should also be suspended for unbecoming behavior.