Respecting Arab MKs Is a Must if Israel Is to Remain a Democracy

Even if the Jewish majority doesn't agree with them, Arab MKs were elected to represent their voters. Intolerance of them means the end of Israeli democracy.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the weekly cabinet meeting, February 7, 2016.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the weekly cabinet meeting, February 7, 2016.Credit: Emil Salman

It’s okay to object to the actions of Balad Knesset members Jamal Zahalka, Basel Ghattas and Haneen Zoabi, whose party is a partner in the Joint Arab List. It’s okay to oppose their meeting with the families of terrorists, to deem it unacceptable for them to observe a moment of silence in the terrorists’ memory and inappropriate to call them martyrs. But it’s not okay to join the ugly, aggressive persecution campaign against the MKs, which has no place in a democracy.

The Knesset has united against the three, nearly wall-to-wall. Representatives from every party but their own vied to be the sharpest-tongued against them. The right’s goal was transparent and dangerous: another attempt to delegitimize the Knesset’s Arab representatives as a step toward ostracism and perhaps even removing them from the legislature. This goal was aided, intentionally or not, by centrist and left-wing MKs who joined the unbridled assault. MKs from Zionist Union, Yesh Atid and even Meretz took part in the attack on Balad.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who never misses an opportunity for incitement against Arab Israelis, outdid them all by “instructing” the attorney general to examine what legal steps can be taken against the three MKs. He, together with the Knesset speaker, also filed a complaint against the MKs with the Knesset Ethics Committee, and Sunday Netanyahu said he would “promote legislation so that anyone who acts like this will not serve in the Knesset.” Nobody would imagine Netanyahu taking such steps against, say, a Jewish MK who claimed that the murder of the Palestinian family in Duma wasn’t terror, or against Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who reportedly met with the family of one of the Jews arrested as suspects in that case.

The MKs of the Joint Arab List, the Knesset’s third biggest party, were elected to represent their voters. This community does not share the worldview, beliefs and opinions of Israel’s Jewish Zionist majority. If Israel purports to be a democracy and to reject accusations that it is becoming an apartheid state, it must respect these opinions, even when they are irritating or even painful to the Jewish majority. The Balad MKs said they met with the families in an effort to help them obtain the release of the bodies of their loved ones, months after they were killed. It’s their right and even their duty to do so.

Arab Israelis are members of the Palestinian people, sometimes even members of the same families, but in any case the same people, with the same history. This creates the fragile and delicate situation of having a conflict of loyalties between their people and their country.

The way to preserve democracy in Israel is to respect this complex situation and demonstrate maximum sensitivity toward it. Arab MKs are in any case already excluded from many areas, and pushing them into a corner would bode ill for Israel. If they are forced to boycott the Knesset, and their community to boycott the elections, Israel will cease to be a democracy.