I Failed to Defend Israeli Democracy: Dov Khenin, Outgoing Communist Lawmaker, Admits Regrets

Dov Khenin, who started the year by quitting the Knesset, tells Haaretz how he’d be a greater agent of change outside parliament

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Dov Khenin in Tel Aviv, January 2019.
Dov Khenin in Tel Aviv, January 2019.Credit: Meged Gozani
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

MK Dov Khenin (Joint List), one of Israel’s most prolific lawmakers, says he regrets failing to mobilize the many Israelis who hope to make peace with the Palestinians and defend Israel’s democracy from encroachments by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

“I’ve managed to enact laws, but I’ve failed to change the country’s direction. The attacks on democracy haven’t diminished,” Khenin told Haaretz this week after the opposition Knesset member announced that he would not run in the April 9 general election after 12 years on the job.

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“The risk of war hasn’t decreased. Profound social issues aren’t being dealt with. These aren’t unachievable goals but rather political decisions,” he said.

“The difficulty is that we haven’t mobilized the large number of people who seek peace, social change and democracy to pressure the government to make it happen. Even if I were elected to the next Knesset, I don’t think I’d be able to change the direction.”

MK Dov Khenin (Joint List) in the Knesset, December 2018.Credit: Emil Salman

Khenin is a member of the politburo of the Communist Party of Israel, which in turn is part of the Arab-Jewish Hadash party. In the 2015 election, Hadash teamed up with three Arab parties to form the Joint List, which won 13 of the Knesset’s 120 seats; Khenin was the only Jewish member.

Khenin, whose Hadash spot in Joint List seemed assured, says he hasn’t resigned from political life, though he has been vague about his plans.

“The key to change is with the public, not the Knesset,” said Khenin, who will be 61 this month. “The people who want change are sitting in despair at home. The efforts that I support – against evictions from a neighborhood or against pollution – don’t create a large movement that can push politics along from another angle.”

In recent years, Khenin has spearheaded efforts including support for migrant workers and an improvement of public transportation.

“Public transportation is critical to reduce social disparities, to expand employment and educational opportunities, and to protect the environment and quality of life for us all,” he said. “Unfortunately, not everyone in the government understands this.”

Khenin says Israel’s parliament has become shallow and populist.

“I’m a little concerned about the next Knesset,” he said. “I very much hope the next MKs are energetic, hardworking and come to work and advance things.”

Few current MKs are viewed as mastering the legislative process like Khenin, a graduate of Hebrew University’s law school with a political science doctorate from Tel Aviv University. Khenin is known as an expert on the Knesset’s rules, examining bills in depth and exposing their weaknesses.

Khenin, who during the most recent Knesset term sponsored hundreds of bills, said he believed that over the past decade more than 100 bills that he sponsored made it into law. “During some Knesset terms, I passed more laws than the coalition did, but it’s not the number that counts but the content,” he said.

As he put it, “Obviously the coalition mobilizes to thwart opposition bills. It’s part of the rules of the game. But every bill has its moment. You need to survey who your allies are, who can object and whether they can be neutralized. You also have to enlist the public. That’s a key element.”

Last week, before the dissolving of the Knesset in the run-up to the election, a number of initiatives that Khenin took part in were passed. These included a law curbing cigarette advertising, which he sponsored with Yehudah Glick (Likud) and Eitan Cabel (Labor). Another law permits the filing of civil suits against polluters. Khenin has also taken part in legislation tightening the oversight of monopolies and tycoons.

“Many MKs view the Knesset as a forum to air controversies. Some devote most of their activity to being elected to the next Knesset,” he said. “It’s a little strange. If you’ve already been elected, first make a difference and only after that try to be re-elected.”

Most of Khenin’s efforts to foil right-wing legislation have been carried out behind the scenes.

“I’ve always preferred to make a difference rather than talk about it,” he said. “I belong to a small minority faction. If we publicized everything we did, our ability to act would be much more limited.”

Khenin hasn’t hesitated to seek support from government officials and right-wing MKs dissatisfied with legislation; he has even tried to persuade rabbis that policies of the governing coalition would harm their followers.

“Sometimes you ask someone for help, sometimes you only ask them not to interfere .… In many recent rightist laws you’ll find that one clause or another was changed using parliamentary tools and formal requests to ministries. But it’s not enough. You often need other people to lend a hand or not team up with the other side.”

He cites the extraction of the main clause from the nation-state law – the clause subordinating the state’s democratic values to its Jewish values – as an example of covert work that made a difference.

“People tend to think that every terrible idea raised in the cabinet and the right immediately goes into effect,” Khenin said. “We managed to take most of the bad things out of those laws. It still doesn’t mean everything’s all right.”

In the Knesset last week the opposition managed to take off the table several right-wing proposals that were due to go to a vote. These included the so-called cultural-loyalty bill, which would deny state funds to cultural institutions deemed disloyal to the state.

Other legislation shelved includes a bill to legalize unauthorized West Bank outposts, a bill letting ministers appoint legal advisers, and a bill proposing the death penalty for terrorists.

“It was a Knesset with many bitter moments, but the ending was sweet,” Khenin said. “We waged a war of attrition and postponed the vote on … bills day to day and week to week. Many of them – bad, dangerous bills – were thrown in the garbage.”

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