MK Zoabi Represents a Test to Israeli Democracy

Lawmakers, along with Prime Minister Netanyahu, called to remove Haneen Zoabi from parliament after she said Israeli soldiers were murderers. But if Israel does not accept Zoabi, it is not a democracy.

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

MK Haneen Zoabi called Israel Defense Force soldiers who killed the nine Turkish citizens on board the Mavi Marmara murderers. “Nine people were murdered. You should apologize and lift the blockade on Gaza.”

It is Zoabi’s prerogative to express herself this way, and the right of most Israelis and their elected officials to be enraged over it – but no one has the right to conduct a public and media lynching of Zoabi as has been done since she made the statement. Ministers and MKs on the right, as well as on the center-left, vied with each other as to who would curse Zoabi more roundly and who would attack her more rudely. A few of them came close to physically assaulting her in the Knesset plenum. They called for her to be removed not only from the Knesset but from the country.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu surpassed them. He is not some heckler in the Knesset, and he has the responsibility to protect the character of the government. Instead, he asked Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to examine how a move to oust Zoabi could be advanced. “She has no place in the Knesset,” he declared.

The prime minister has no standing in deciding whose place is in the Knesset and whose is not. With his statement he joins those who ferociously attacked Zoabi. He did so cynically, partly to dodge the criticism of the reconciliation agreement with Turkey, which was not well received in Israel, and to direct the fire elsewhere.

But the significance of the attack on Zoabi is much more serious. Her targeting shows the true intention of Netanyahu and the right, which some of the opposition on the center-left has joined to their shame. For them, Zoabi is just a milestone on the road to a broader goal, which is to overrun the authentic representation of Israel’s Arabs and remove her from the Knesset. Zoabi is only the first victim on that road.

The prime minister and spokespeople for the right should be reminded that this is a test for democracy: the ability to act tolerantly toward the opinions of the minority, extreme and harsh though they may be. Zoabi represents a public mood, even if that public is a small minority, and it has a place in public discourse. Israel must accept Zoabi because if it does not, it is not a democracy.