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Amid furious scenes, Knesset law panel okays first reading for MK suspension bill

Leader of Joint (Arab) List Odeh ‘will weigh resigning’ if Balad MKs are ousted, says controversial legislation will strengthen ‘Arab separatists’

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

The Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee erupts in angry debate on February 29, 2016, and a Knesset security staffer prepares to eject MK Abdullah Abu Maaruf (Knesset channel screenshot)
The Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee erupts in angry debate on February 29, 2016, and a Knesset security staffer prepares to eject MK Abdullah Abu Maaruf (Knesset channel screenshot)

The Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Monday voted to send for a first reading in the Knesset plenum a controversial piece of legislation that would allow MKs to suspend their colleagues for “inappropriate behavior.”

The vote passed by seven to zero following a stormy and raucous session, during which the voice of committee chairman Nissan Slomiansky (Jewish Home) was all but drowned out. Opposition MKs on the panel boycotted the vote itself on the grounds that the preceding debate had been insufficient.

Dov Khenin, the sole Jewish MK on the Joint (Arab) List, walked out screaming that the vote was illegitimate. Other opposition MKs slammed the table in anger at the conduct of proceedings, and one, Abdullah Abu Maaruf (Joint List), was removed from the committee session by Knesset security staffers. “There have been regimes like this in the past,” said Abu Maaruf. “This is terrorism.”

During the discussion, the head of the Joint List Ayman Odeh announced that he and members of his party were considering resigning from the Knesset if three lawmakers from Balad, one of the Joint List’s constituent parties, were expelled.

The suspension bill, backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was triggered by a meeting earlier this month by the three Balad MKs, who held talks with the families of terrorists killed during attacks or attempted attacks on Israelis.

The bill aims to allow 90 MKs to suspend a fellow lawmaker for “inappropriate behavior” — negating the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state; inciting to racism; and supporting armed struggle by a hostile state or a terrorist organization against the State of Israel.

Joint (Arab) List Chairman Ayman Odeh leads the weekly party meeting at the Knesset, October 12, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Joint (Arab) List Chairman Ayman Odeh leads the weekly party meeting at the Knesset, October 12, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Odeh also said a bill such as the one under discussion could strengthen a nascent debate in Arab Israeli intellectual circles about creating a separate Arab parliament in Israel, which would act as counterweight to a Knesset that only represented the country’s Jews.

The law committee’s meeting had originally been scheduled for February 16, but was postponed at the last minute by Slomiansky on the grounds that the draft legislation lacked the necessary coalition support.

Joint Arab List members Jamal Zahalka (L), Hanin Zoabi (R), Basel Ghattas (2R) and Leader of the Joint Arab list, Ayman Odeh at the weekly Joint Arab list meeting at the Knesset, Israel's parliament in Jerusalem on February 8, 2016. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Joint Arab List members Jamal Zahalka (L), Hanin Zoabi (R), Basel Ghattas (2R) and leader of the Joint Arab list, Ayman Odeh at the weekly Joint Arab list meeting at the Knesset, February 8, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

That day, Netanyahu took time out of a visit in Berlin to call Slomiansky and assure him that the coalition and his Likud Party would support it and that the committee should meet again soon.

Ayman Odeh told the committee that “despite the trail of delegitimization against us, and the raising of the electoral threshold [to 3.25 per cent just before the last elections], we decided to remain part of Israeli politics and they’re still running after us.

“All of a sudden, they start to talk about Balad and not about the Joint List… after banning the northern branch of the Islamic Movement, now they’re trying to delegitimize Balad, because we know that in a few months, they will want to outlaw them too.”

The three Balad Party lawmakers were suspended on February 8 by the Knesset Ethics Committee, Hanin Zoabi and Basel Ghattas receiving for four months and Jamal Zahalka for two.

“We were elected by our people, not by the right-wing,” Odeh said. “We are considering, and I personally am considering, resigning if the Balad members are expelled from the Knesset.

“Maybe this will become a parliament made up entirely of Jews. But this isn’t a struggle between Jews and Arabs,” Odeh said. “This is a struggle for democracy, of Jews and Arabs, together, advocating democracy in the face of McCarthyism and racism.” McCarthyism, named for the American politician Joseph McCarthy who sought to expose so-called Communists in 1950s America, is a term for making unfounded accusations to silence political dissent.

File: Joint Arab List MK Dov Khenin in the Knesset. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
File: Joint Arab List MK Dov Khenin in the Knesset. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Khenin told the committee: “Netanyahu’s message to Arab citizens is: ‘If your MKs annoy the Jews, we’ll just throw them out. You haven’t got any chance of influence here.'”

Khenin said the “disrespectful” style of debate reflected the bill’s content. “The Knesset chairman [Yuli Edelstein] made a problematic declaration and didn’t bother to stay to hear the questions and answer them.

“After him, comes [a representative of] the attorney general, who presents an embarrassing legal opinion, and rushes to leave.”

That is no way to legislate, he said.

Asked about the bill a couple of weeks ago, Edelstein said the bill was “not a great idea,” and that “it will never be put on the table as long as I’m speaker.”

But just two days later — after Netanyahu’s intervention — Edelstein reversed his stance and said he supported the amended version of the bill. “If it’s legislated correctly, there will be no harm to democracy and even an improvement to democracy,” he told Israel Radio.

File: Likud MK Benny Begin during a Likud party meeting at the Knesset, May 25, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
File: Likud MK Benny Begin during a Likud party meeting at the Knesset, May 25, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

MK Benny Begin (Likud) told the committee that while the bill was “bad,” he would vote in favor so that he could curb its excesses before it became law. He warned it could lead to the majority trampling the rights of minorities, which could not be justified by efforts to defend the state against terrorism.

Last Monday, the prime minister reiterated his backing for the move, telling a Likud faction meeting: “It’s interesting that measures and regulations they have in other democracies are described as anti-democratic when Israel tries them.

“We won’t be warned off and we will pass this, as it is elementary when Knesset members are holding moments of silence in memory of those who killed kids and we will act as they certainly would in the US, Canada and Britain if there were those who stood in memorial for Jihadi John or other murderers.”

Earlier this month, President Reuben Rivlin harshly criticized the draft legislation, saying the bill reflected “a problematic understanding of parliamentary democracy,” and that the correct address for MKs who had committed or were suspected of committing crimes was the attorney general, not fellow lawmakers.

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