Lawmakers moved ahead Tuesday with the first-ever effort to expel a Knesset member from parliament, as they considered a motion to remove MK Basel Ghattas over suspicions he smuggled cellphones and other contraband into an Israeli prison.
Members of the Knesset House Committee debated the unprecedented move in a three-hour session interspersed with heated shouting, officially beginning the process that could end with a plenary vote on the ouster.
Ghattas, of the Joint (Arab) List’s Balad party, is under a criminal investigation after he was caught on prison surveillance video passing envelopes to Palestinian security prisoners last month.
He was released to house arrest in January, five days after he was arrested. Although no longer under house arrest, he has been barred from all parliamentary activities except for plenum votes, but has not yet been charged.
Coalition lawmakers, led by Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin, are now attempting to remove Ghattas from office based on a law passed in July 2016, under which 70 Knesset members — 10 of whom must be from the opposition — may file a complaint with the Knesset speaker against any lawmaker who supports terrorism against Israel or incites to racial hatred, thus launching an impeachment process.
Tuesday’s debate came after opposition party Yesh Atid, despite initial objection, announced support for the move in January.
Opening the deliberations, Knesset chief legal adviser Eyal Yinon said that while “there is no doubt that Ghattas’s actions are extremely grave and there is strong proof for serious criminal wrongdoing,” the law specifically states that a Knesset member can only be removed for “supporting an armed struggle of a terror organization against the State of Israel.” That, he urged, must be the chief consideration of Knesset members.
Police say that Ghattas exploited his position as a member of Knesset, who cannot be subjected to a body search, during a visit to Ketziot Prison last year where he met with Walid Daka, a Palestinian prisoner serving a 37-year sentence for the 1984 abduction and murder of 19-year-old IDF soldier Moshe Tamam. The MK also met with Basel Ben Sulieman Bezre, who is serving a 15-year sentence on a terror conviction.
Ghattas has consistently denied the allegations against him, but has had to contend with video footage that appears to show him smuggling the cellphones into the prison.
Ynon went on to quote a letter sent to the committee on Monday by the legal aid group Adallah representing Ghattas, which said it was wrong for the committee to debate the issue before a formal indictment had been presented and while “efforts to reach a plea bargain were still underway.”
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has authorized a draft indictment against Ghattas, which has yet to be lodged, and which includes charges of using property to abet terror, fraud, breach of trust and aggravated fraud. Adallah’s letter was the first to reveal negotiations to reach a plea.
Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri confirmed the negotiations to the committee, saying that a final decision will be reached on Thursday. Adding that the plea bargain would include prison time for Ghattas and his immediate resignation from the Knesset, Nizri said the Attorney General’s Office felt the Knesset debate was superfluous.
“Why try to expel him when he’s going to resign anyway?” he said.
Elkin, however, argued that the legal proceedings against Ghattas should not affect the Knesset effort to oust him. “Those who say we need to wait for him to be found guilty by a court do not understand the point of this law,” he said.
According to Elkin, the law was created to allow MKs to “root out” seditious activity without a court decision. “When I pushed for this law I didn’t think it would be used so quickly and for such an extreme and obvious case,” he added, saying that the information available to lawmakers at this point was enough to carry out the law.
Responding on behalf of the Joint (Arab) List, MK Ahmad Tibi said that the entire debate was not driven by facts or proof but by racism. “Can you honestly tell me this would have happened with a Jewish MK? Ghattas has not been given the same process you would have given them. This is a kangaroo court,” he said over the angry shouts of coalition MKs.
Several Knesset members from the Joint (Arab) List, as well as Likud MK Oren Hazan, were removed from the debate for interrupting the proceedings. While the debate was scheduled to take just one and a half hours, chairman Yoav Kish chose to extend it an additional hour and a half after coalition MK Menachem Mozes (United Torah Judaism) arrived 80 minutes late. Failing to attend at least half of the debate would have prevented Mozes from voting and jeopardized the coalition’s majority.
Despite the protracted debate, Kish ruled that due to MKs being drawn away from the meeting for other committee sessions, the vote will be delayed until next Monday, with MKs who attended over half of Tuesday’s meeting allowed to vote.
But even if the House Committee does approve the measure, it will require the support of the opposition Zionist Union party to reach the 90 votes out of 120 needed to expel a Knesset member.
In January the Zionist Union sent a letter to the Joint (Arab) List urging the party to expel Ghattas and avoid his impeachment. The party said it “does not support the principle of the MK expulsion law, since MKs don’t need to kick out other MKs on their own — but the Joint List needs to work to fire Ghattas from the Knesset in light of the grave suspicions against him — or the Zionist Union will allow its members to vote as they please.”
The Joint (Arab) List, which is also in the opposition, rejected the letter and called on lawmakers to oppose the use of the “anti-democratic” expulsion law.
Should Ghattas be expelled, the next candidate from the Joint List would take his place. According to the Central Elections Committee, that would be Juma Azbarga, a resident of the Bedouin town of Lakiya, near Beersheba in Israel’s south.