Bid to oust MK Ofer Cassif over backing for ICJ genocide case falls short in Knesset

Parties trade barbs after centrists from Yesh Atid, National Unity and Labor sit out impeachment motion, leaving it five votes short of 90 needed to boot Hadash-Ta’al lawmaker

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"

Hadash-Ta'al MK Ofer Cassif (center) celebrating after an impeachment vote against him failed in the Knesset, February 19, 2024. (Noam Moskowitz/ Knesset Spokesperson)
Hadash-Ta'al MK Ofer Cassif (center) celebrating after an impeachment vote against him failed in the Knesset, February 19, 2024. (Noam Moskowitz/ Knesset Spokesperson)

An unprecedented impeachment vote against MK Ofer Cassif failed in the Knesset plenum on Monday evening, as centrist parties sat out the effort to book the Hadash-Ta’al lawmaker over comments supporting a genocide accusation aaginst Israel.

A total of 85 lawmakers voted to boot Cassif from the parliament, five short of the required three-fourths support in the 120-seat body needed to expel the far-left legislator.

Chaos erupted in the plenum following the vote, as Arab lawmakers rushed to hug Cassif while rightwing lawmakers vented their anger by screaming “shame” and accusing his supporters in the Knesset of being Nazis and “terror supporters.”

At one point, it appeared that the two sides were on the verge of coming to blows.

The effort to remove Cassif from the parliament came in response to his public support for South Africa’s case against Israel at the International Court of Justice, which has been described as “treasonous” by his critics.

While supported in the end by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the motion to expel Cassif failed to garner the support Yesh Atid, National Unity or Labor, most of whose MKs sat out the historic vote.

In a statement, Netanyahu’s Likud party lashed out at Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid, asserting that the opposition leader “should be ashamed” for saving a “terror supporter,” accusing him of seeking to preserve ties with Arab lawmakers should he need their support to form a coalition in the future.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman also weighed in, respectively slamming Lapid and National Unity head Benny Gantz as “leftist” and “weak” and accusing them of “abandoning” the troops in favor of Cassif.

The only Jewish member of the Arab-majority Hadash-Ta’al party, Cassif had signed a petition backing Pretoria’s claims and accused Israeli leaders of advocating for crimes against humanity against the Palestinians.

Yisrael Beytenu MK Oded Forer calls for lawmakers to impeach Hadash-Ta’al MK Ofer Cassif during a debate in the Knesset plenum on Feburary 19, 2024. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset Spokesperson)

In response, Yisrael Beytenu MK Oded Forer set out to invoke a previously unused legal mechanism in the 2016 Suspension Law, under which legislators may drum out 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 impeachment was brought to a vote after cruising through the first two steps of the process — a letter signed by a minimum of 70 MKs and the support of at least three-quarters of the Knesset’s House Committee.

While a Yesh Atid spokesman had previously stated that the party “believes that Ofer Cassif should not be an MK in the Knesset,” Lapid had given his MKs freedom to vote as they saw fit and personally expressed opposition to the move at his party’s weekly faction meeting earlier Monday.

Even if passed, the motion would ultimately be overturned by the High Court and within weeks Cassif would “return here a hero,” Lapid argued, calling for the Knesset to remove his immunity in connection with a recent aggravated assault indictment against him.

Defending Cassif during an extended debate ahead of the vote in the Knesset plenum on Monday evening, Hadash-Ta’al MK Ayman Odeh claimed that the right was banking on such an eventuality and planned on using any court ruling in favor of Cassif to justify continuing the government’s efforts to curtail the power of the courts.

“It’s the continuation of the judicial coup,” he said.

Hadash-Ta’al MK Ofer Cassif speaks during a discussion and a vote on his expulsion at Knesset plenum on February 19, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Cassif’s critics had harsh words for the lawmaker, with coalition whip Ofir Katz of Likud arguing that he was “a supporter of terrorism” who “glorifies terrorists and legitimizes harming IDF soldiers.”

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 stated that “an attack on soldiers is not terrorism,” compared Israel and the IDF to the Nazi regime, and voiced support for changing the national anthem.

“From the point of view of MK Cassif, our soldiers are war criminals. For him, the members of the war cabinet are war criminals,” stated Forer.

“You were elected to make decisions, you here will have to vote according to what you think, not according to what someone else in the Supreme Court will think. Vote for the troops, vote for our soldiers who are currently on the frontlines, risking their lives, [while] there is someone sitting here in the Knesset who claims that they are war criminals when they protect us,” he said.

Far-right and Arab MKs argue following a failed attempt to impeach Hadash-Ta’al MK Ofer Cassif on February 19, 2024. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset Spokesperson)

Despite the widespread backlash against Cassif, both Deputy Attorney General Avital Sompolinsky and Knesset legal adviser Sagit Afik have stated that the charges against him fall short of “crossing the criminal threshold” necessary for his removal.

“This motion for impeachment that you are being asked to vote on today is based on a clear lie, that I support the armed struggle of Hamas,” Cassif countered during an extended speech defending himself.

“Behind the lie on which the impeachment request is based is a clear malicious intent — political persecution and the silencing of any critical voice in general and of the Arab citizens and their representatives in the Knesset in particular — when the ultimate goal is their complete exclusion from the public and parliamentary discourse,” he said.

“Even if we assume that my signature contained an explicit statement that the Israeli government is committing genocide in Gaza, does this and the call for an end to the war [constitute] support for Hamas or its armed struggle, as required by the impeachment law? Only in an Orwellian world where truth is a lie can my signature on a petition whose stated purpose is to end violence be presented as support for violence,” he argued.

“Many here refuse to see and understand the essence of real democracy is the protection of the rights of the minority,” agreed Iman Khatib-Yassin from the Islamist Ra’am party, accusing Cassif’s opponents of seeking to disenfranchise his voters.

Responding to the motion’s failure, Hadash-Ta’al issued a statement arguing that the fact that 85 lawmakers supported Cassif’s removal showed that “the remnants of democracy that still remain in Israel have been completely eroded under the auspices of the messianic war of Netanyahu and the Kahanists around him.”

“The danger is still here,” the party warned.

Speaking with The Times of Israel following the vote, Forer expressed disappointment in Lapid and called on Cassif to change his rhetoric, although he admitted that this is unlikely.

“Someone who supports the armed struggle against the State of Israel and decides that Israel is carrying out genocide can’t be a member of Knesset,” Forer said.

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