The coalition on Monday unanimously approved new legislation by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that would allow 90 Knesset members — of the 120 in the House — to suspend colleagues for “unseemly behavior.”
The prime minister lauded the coalition support for the bill, which must now make it way through a series of Knesset readings if it is to become law. Analysts said it might pass, but that it would prove unimplementable in the current parliament, in which Netanyahu’s coalition numbers just 61 MKs. Zionist Union, Yesh Atid and the Joint (Arab) List opposition parties oppose it, as do some members of the coalition.
In response to confusion surrounding what an MK would have to do to merit a possible suspension, Netanyahu said the bill would specify the grounds for punishment. According to reports, a decision on the length of such a suspension would be made by the Knesset Ethics Committee.
“I praise this since we need to ensure basic standards for behavior so our democracy doesn’t turn, in the words of a great American jurist, into a suicide pact. It needs to look after itself and protect itself,” Netanyahu said.
The initiative was floated in the cabinet in response to a controversial meeting last week between three Arab Knesset members and family members of Palestinians killed while attacking Israelis.
Responding to criticism of the bill from numerous legislators, Netanyahu told the Knesset on Monday afternoon that he strongly supports the integration of Arab-Israelis in all fields of Israeli endeavor, but that it was intolerable that Israeli MKs had “stood in silence to honor terrorists.”
Said Netanyahu: “We are not prepared to accept a situation in which MKs support the families of those who murder Israeli citizens. There’s a limit. There’s something called national pride. I wonder what would happen in the British parliament if a British MP stood for a minute’s silence to honor Jihadi John, or if members of the US Congress stood to honor the California murderer,” he said. “(Those parliaments) would not accept it, and neither will we.”
Netanyahu was referring to the fact that the three MKs, at last Tuesday’s meeting with the families of terrorists, stood for a moment’s silence. One of the trio, Jamal Zahalka, said subsequently this was out of respect “for all the Palestinian dead.” Zahalka was ejected from the Knesset Monday after repeated disturbances.
Opposition leader Issac Herzog castigated the MKs for holding the meeting, but said the planned law constituted “a breach of Knesset procedures,” and the potential “start of a slippery slope” in which MKs “from left and right will be kicked out for purportedly inappropriate behavior.” He said the Knesset already had the necessary procedures for disciplining the three Arab MKs.
Several politicians from the far right and far left have also attacked the legislation.
Bezalel Smotrich, a hawkish member of the right-wing Jewish Home party, said Monday that while a “root canal” treatment was required in dealings with Israel’s Arabs, the proposed legislation was “bad.”
“Tomorrow morning, someone might decide that Michal Rozin [of the left-wing Meretz party] is too extreme and that she has no place in the Knesset; then someone might decide that I am too extreme and that I have no place in the Knesset,” he told Army Radio.
Dov Khenin, a far-left Jewish lawmaker from the Arab-dominated Joint List, said in a statement that the move was part of a “comprehensive attack on democracy” and an attempt to use the meeting of MKs with the Palestinian families as “an excuse to continue a campaign of labeling Israeli Arabs as internal enemies.”
Former foreign and justice minister Tzipi Livni (National Union) criticized the bill and said Netanyahu was making “cynical use” of the public anger over the three MKs’ meeting.
Arab lawmakers boycotted discussions about the legislation as well as a session on the subject in the Knesset Ethics Committee on Monday.
The debate, they said in a statement, was a “performance by a populist band of inciters that is trying every method to delegitimize Arab Knesset members and restrict the scope of their political action.”
The three MKs, all members of the Balad party — which, along with Khenin’s Hadash, is a constituent element of the Joint List — have maintained that the sole goal of their meeting with the families of the attackers, some of whom were terrorists who killed Israeli civilians, was to advance the release of their bodies, which have been held by Israeli authorities, and did not constitute support for terror. However, they acknowledged holding a moment’s silence at the meeting in honor of Palestinian dead, and one of the MKs — Basel Ghattas — called the terrorists “martyrs” in a subsequent TV interview.
Following the visit, Netanyahu asked Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to explore the possibility of legislation that would allow Knesset members to suspend other lawmakers for “inappropriate behavior.”
If passed, the legislation would require a 90-MK majority to boot a lawmaker, after consultations with coalition parties. A similar measure is already in place that would oust the president or Knesset speaker under similar circumstances.
Sue Surkes contributed to this report.