An MK accused Israel of ‘genocide.’ Now he may be expelled from the Knesset

Knesset House Committee set to hear arguments in ‘unprecedented’ effort to remove far-left lawmaker Ofer Cassif, who claims the move is ‘political persecution, pure and simple’

Sam Sokol

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

MK Ofer Cassif attends a Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting on the planned judicial reform, at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on June 25, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
MK Ofer Cassif attends a Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting on the planned judicial reform, at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on June 25, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Monday morning, the Knesset House Committee is slated to hear arguments in an unusual debate that will determine the political future of lawmaker Ofer Cassif, the only Jewish member of the Arab-majority Hadash-Ta’al party.

If the hearing goes badly for Cassif, he could soon face an unprecedented vote in the Knesset plenum to expel him from the legislative body, the result of his parliamentary colleagues’ intense anger over his public support for a South African petition to the International Court of Justice accusing Israel of committing genocide in Gaza.

In response to Cassif’s “treasonous” actions, Yisrael Beytenu MK Oded Forer set out to invoke a previously unused legal mechanism contained in the 2016 “Suspension Law,” under which legislators may expel colleagues from their ranks if they are found to have committed one of a number of infractions, including expressing support “for an armed struggle” against Israel or inciting racism.

The process requires submitting a letter signed by 70 Knesset members — including 10 who sit in the opposition — to the Knesset’s House Committee. Three-quarters of House Committee members must vote to advance the case to the plenum, where a super-majority vote of 90 legislators is needed to suspend a peer from their ranks.

Within days of Forer’s appeal, 85 lawmakers had signed onto a document calling for impeachment proceedings against Cassif, leading to this week’s scheduled hearing.

Unprecedented proceedings

“This is the first time someone is being brought to the committee” and there are “no precedents” to indicate how it might go, Amir Fuchs, a senior researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, noted in a phone interview on Sunday.

MK Oded Forer, chair of the Knesset’s Immigration, Absorption, and Diaspora Affairs Committee, oversees a hearing on Hebrew teacher shortages on January 18, 2023. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset)

Four years ago, lawmakers attempted to gather the required signatures to bring similar charges against Joint List leader MK Ayman Odeh, but the effort never made it to the committee stage. A similar effort against Balad MK Basel Ghattas, who was accused of illegally smuggling cellphones to Palestinian prisoners, was aborted in 2017 after he accepted a plea bargain and resigned.

According to Fuchs, the hearing is expected to take on the form of a “semi-judicial” deliberation, in which Forer will present the charges against Cassif, who will be permitted to bring legal representation to defend himself. The Knesset legal adviser will weigh in, as will other government attorneys.

Should Cassif be expelled from the Knesset, he will then have the right to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, which “will demand overwhelming evidence to impeach,” Fuchs said.

At issue is whether or not Cassif’s public endorsement of the South African petition constitutes support for Hamas terrorism against Israel.

While the International Court of Justice rejected South Africa’s demand that it order an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, it ruled on Friday that at least some of Israel’s actions in the Gaza Strip during the ongoing war against Hamas could potentially fall within the terms of the Genocide Convention, and that Jerusalem must take measures to prevent the committal of genocidal acts against Palestinians.

On October 7, thousand of Hamas-led terrorists burst across the border into Israel from Gaza and killed some 1,200 people, the majority of whom were civilians, while also committing severe atrocities including rape, torture and other crimes.

The destruction caused by Hamas terrorists in Kibbutz Nir Oz on October 7, 2023, near the Israeli-Gaza border, in southern Israel, November 21, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

They took hostage 253 people, of whom 132 remain in captivity, although not all of them are alive. Israel subsequently declared war on Gaza with the goal of eliminating Hamas and its capability to threaten Israel’s security, and releasing the hostages. The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 27,000 people have been killed so far, an unverified figure which includes close to 10,000 Hamas operatives Israel says it has killed in fighting.

Rejecting the charges

Despite believing that there is a strong chance his Knesset colleagues will side with Forer, Cassif insists that he is innocent, calling the efforts to expel him “political persecution, pure and simple.”

“I’ve always been against racism, terrorism and armed struggle against Israel,” Cassif told The Times of Israel on Sunday, arguing that he had merely been “calling for ending the war in order to save lives.”

“So transferring such an anti-war belief or stance into a support of armed struggle, this is really Orwellian,” he said.

“I’m committed to the well-being of Israelis, first and foremost. My activities as a member of the Knesset have always been in [pursuit] of what I see as the best for the Israelis,” Cassif added. “And my objection to the war is because I find it, to say the least, unjust. Unjust to Palestinians and Israelis alike. So I stand against the government and against the policy the government pursues.”

For his part, Forer countered that Cassif’s outspoken support of the South African petition served Hamas’ ends, telling The Times of Israel Sunday that if The Hague had accepted all of Pretoria’s claims, “Israel would have been left defenseless” against the terrorist organization.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry’s legal adviser Tal Becker speaking at The Hague, January 12, 2024 (ICJ)

“If Israel will be found guilty of genocide, then probably we will have difficulty to buy arms from many countries [and] our soldiers are going to be exposed to prosecution all over the world,” he said.

History of comments

Cassif’s recent support for South Africa must be understood within the context of his prior rhetoric, Forer said, arguing that statements like his 2019 assertion that “an attack on soldiers is not terrorism,” showed that he believed “it’s okay if you fight against Israel.”

Cassif was disqualified from running for the Knesset by the Central Elections Committee in 2019 over his provocative comments, including calling then-justice minister Ayelet Shaked “neo-Nazi scum.” That decision was later overturned by the Supreme Court.

He has also previously been accused of comparing Israel and the IDF to the Nazi regime, of calling to fight against “Judeo-Nazis,” and voicing support for changing the national anthem.

More recently, only weeks after the October 7 attack, the Knesset Ethics Committee suspended Cassif for 45 days following a series of statements which it described as linking “Holocaust imagery and the government’s policy during the war.”

“I think that what he has done by signing this petition is much more severe than even actions like [what] former Knesset member Basel Ghattas did by smuggling phones to security prisoners in prison, because he actually put the whole State of Israel at risk,” Forer asserted, predicting that he would succeed in ousting Cassif.

Forer suggested that the long proceedings in the Knesset, culminating in what he believes will be the 90 required votes to expel Cassif, “is something that the Supreme Court won’t be able to ignore.”

Times of Israel staff, Jeremy Sharon and Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report.

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