President Rivlin Attacks Bill Aimed at Suspending Israeli Arab Lawmakers

Israeli president warns against danger of Knesset taking on the role of punishing elected officials, which he says is the realm of the state attorney general.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin
Erica Gannett for IRL Productions

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin roundly attacked the bill aimed at suspending Arab Knesset members, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pushing.

He said the so-called "Suspension Bill" represents "a problematic understanding of parliamentary democracy." Rivlin said that the appropriate authority for handling MKs who apparently violate the law is the state attorney general and not the Knesset.

"Many voices in Israel today have a narrow, minimalist understanding of the substance of democracy," Rivlin said during the launching of a book by publicist Yoaz Hendel at the Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem. "For them, democracy is not anything but majority rule. Some of them believe this."

He remarked that Menahem Begin understood that such an understanding of democracy is not only narrow and narrowing, but also dangerous. It is dangerous to the minority, dangerous to the opposition, dangerous to the individual, and in the end dangerous to the country. The 'Suspension Bill' being proposed is an example, of a problematic understanding of parliamentary democracy."

Rivlin noted that the state president and Knesset speaker are elected by the Knesset, and therefore the Knesset has the authority to oust them. At that point, Rivlin stung back at rightwingers who have been critical of him since he assumed the presidency. "In the past year, I have feared, as someone who might experience this personally in unprecedented fashion," he said with a smile.

The president stressed that the bill for suspending Knesset members sins in substance against the Knesset and sins against the voting public. "For Knesset members who committed crimes, or are suspected of a criminal offense, the state attorney general needs to order an investigation and a look into matters, and the relevant criminal court system has to be fully utilized after stripping them of their immunity," said Rivlin. "Well, I've said it before and I'll say it again: We must not let the Knesset, whose representatives are elected by the public, to turn over by itself a matter of the public. A Knesset that will be able, even justifiably, to decide today on stopping the tenure of such public representatives, will order tomorrow, unjustifiably, the stopping of tenure of others – where are we coming to?"

Rivlin stressed: "We must not let the Knesset, as a legislative and supervisory authority, turn into an investigative and punitive body. Such a situation will go astray and cause substantial long-term damage, and the only thing that will be hurt will be the State of Israel."

Rivlin criticized during his speech Knesset members from the Balad party for the meeting they held with the families of Palestinian terrorists.

"When three members of Israel's Knesset choose to visit the families of terrorists, to sit in the faces of Israeli citizens, to spit in the faces of the victims' families, to spit in the faces of all who are trying to restore trusting relations between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel, it is not the right of the state attorney general to order an examination of matters – it is his duty," he said. "At the same time, even if they deserve to be tried, God help us if the Knesset is the authority to mete out justice."

Rivlin also said that many in Israel speak in the name of nationalism, faith or the historic promise to the Jewish people. "They present liberalism as an obstacle, a danger to the nation," Rivlin said. "In Israel, the liberal crisis on the right has reached the point that public figures on the left accuse the right of being unable to be liberal, inasmuch as the matter will cover up the basic substance. Few, if any, argue with this accusation form the right."

Rivlin then praised Yoav Hendel the publicist as one of the few on the right dealing with this issue. "As a liberal whose roots are planted deep in the ideological right, I believe that the great challenge set before the State of Israel, at this time of an ongoing bloody conflict, is the defense of liberalism and the reinforcement of its strongholds," he said. "The mission of the liberal right is to establish within the rightist camp an ideological, cutting edge alternative, to the narrow democracy version. This is an ideological and educational struggle, but it must also be carried out in the practical realm. If the liberal right will succeed in this mission, as it has in the past, it will present the State of Israel with an indisputable gift, a regime that is not only a government of the people, but rather a liberal democracy, that will be a government of the people that also provides human dignity."