Et Tu, Rivlin? Don't Bar Israeli Arab Lawmaker From Event at President's Residence

In barring a suspended Arab Knesset member from an event at the President's Residence, President Reuven Rivlin joined all those who are undermining and trying to destroy Israeli democracy.

MK Jamal Zahalka.
Olivier Fitoussi

President Reuven Rivlin ordered the ejection from the President’s Residence of an elected, incumbent Knesset member. In so doing, he was derelict in his duty and he debased the Knesset. He should not have done so. This ignominious act took place on Wednesday: MK Jamal Zahalka (Joint Arab List) came to the President’s Residence in Jerusalem to attend a conference of the mayors of Israel’s Arab towns on the government’s proposed five-year development plan for their communities. The heads of all the Arab parties were invited, including Zahalka — he is the chairman of Balad, one of the four parties that comprise the Joint Arab List. He says that when he arrived, however, he was told that no places were available. The President’s Residence later specified that Zahalka was barred not for technical reasons, but rather on account of his meeting with the families of slain Palestinian terrorists this month. On February 8, the Knesset Ethics Committee suspended Zahalka for two months in the wake of the meeting; two fellow Balad MKs were suspended for four months.

The President’s Residence is not a private dwelling. The president has the right to invite or not to invite individuals as he sees fit, but he has a duty to base his decision on the needs of his position. It is unacceptable for a president to expel from his official residence a sitting Knesset member on account of his opinions or actions. The president has no authority or right to punish MKs. He cannot humiliate them by expelling them from his residence.

Rivlin’s conduct is particularly grave against the backdrop of the persecution and incitement campaign against Arab MKs. Instead of standing as a bulwark against this campaign, Rivlin decided to join it and to add fuel to the fires of hatred and racism. In this act Rivlin joined all those who are undermining democracy and trying to destroy it. Rivlin, who thus far has exhibited an independent mind and commendable courage, gave in this time to racist and ultra-nationalist opinions, showing a glaring lack of sensitivity. There is no other way to describe his behavior. He thereby joined the campaign of incitement and persecution, the real purpose of which is to remove authentic representatives of the Arab community from the Knesset, turning it into a Jewish body. In doing so, Rivlin abused his role as a unifying president, one who avoids creating rifts, a president of all citizens, not only of Jewish Israelis.

If the Knesset’s dignity was important to him, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein should have condemned Rivlin’s shameful behavior. If the president wishes to retain his stature and prestige he must quickly apologize to Zahalka for humiliating him and the Knesset.