Controversial MK suspension bill passes first Knesset reading

Proposal would allow lawmakers to ban colleagues for inciting racism, supporting terror; critics say move limits democracy

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Leader of the Joint (Arab) list, Ayman Odeh, seen during a vote on the bill that would allow MKs to suspend lawmakers from the Knesset, March 28, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Leader of the Joint (Arab) list, Ayman Odeh, seen during a vote on the bill that would allow MKs to suspend lawmakers from the Knesset, March 28, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Knesset voted Monday night to advance a controversial law enabling MKs to suspend their colleagues, approving the first reading of the bill by 59 to 52 votes.

The proposal would allow 90 MKs to vote to suspend lawmakers if they “negate the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” incite racism, or express support for a terror group or state in its war against Israel.

The coalition managed to secure the win despite two Likud members refusing to support the measure, after the opposition Yisrael Beytenu party abstained from the vote.

The measure must still pass two more Knesset readings.

The vote was preceded by a flurry of speeches by MKs calling to support or oppose the measure, as well as discussions by some MKs about a soldier charged with murder over the shooting death of a wounded Palestinian assailant in Hebron last week.

Speaking before the vote, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the bill would help in Israel’s fight against terror.

“I expect all those who say they are in favor of the bill to vote in support and to not give an advantage or profit to those who support terror,” he told the weekly Likud meeting, anticipating rebellion by a number of coalition MKs.

Likud MKs David Amsalem and Avraham Neguise followed through on threats not to vote with the government until it renews the immigration of remaining Falashmura Jews from Ethiopia.

Earlier Monday, Avigdor Liberman, head of hawkish Yisrael Beytenu, said he would not support the measure unless he gets tit-for-tat backing from the coalition for a bill to block the Supreme Court from involvement in activities of the Central Elections Committee.

Backed by Netanyahu, the bill was proposed after three Arab MKs made a condolence visit to the families of Palestinians killed while attacking Israelis, and the three observed a moment of silence, which some said was tantamount to showing support for terror.

Israeli Arab MKs meet with families of Palestinian terrorists, February 2, 2016 (Palestinian Media Watch)
Israeli Arab MKs meet with families of Palestinian terrorists, February 2, 2016. (Palestinian Media Watch)

In a legal opinion published hours before a Monday night vote on the bill, Eyal Yinon, the chief legal adviser for Israel’s parliament, said that while he does not deem it necessary, it is “preferable” the proposal receive a majority and could face legal challenges if it doesn’t.

The controversial measure has been vociferously opposed by some, including President Reuven Rivlin, who warned that the power to punish lawmakers should not be in the hands of fellow Knesset members.

Earlier this month Rivlin said 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.

Writing on Twitter during the vote, opposition leader Isaac Herzog railed against the proposal, saying it would do nothing to prevent terror attacks.

“I call on the prime minister and his coalition: Stop!” he wrote. “This is an unnecessary and twisted law that is not needed in order to fight terror.”

File: Leader of the Joint Arab list, Ayman Odeh leads the weekly Joint Arab list meeting at the Knesset, Israel's parliament in Jerusalem, October 12, 2015. (Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Ayman Odeh leads the weekly Joint (Arab) List meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, October 12, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In February, a stormy meeting of the Knesset’s Constitution Law and Justice Committee voted to send the MK suspension bill for a first reading in the Knesset — prompting the head of the Joint (Arab) List MK Ayman Odeh to announce that he and members of his party were considering resigning from the Knesset if the three lawmakers who made the condolence visit were expelled.

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

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 a counterweight to a Knesset that only represented the country’s Jews.

Ahead of the vote, former Shin Bet head and current Likud MK Avi Dichter said Odeh would be called to account for his support of Palestinian terrorists assassinated by Israeli forces.

Odeh later took the podium and accused Dichter of “cheap and lowly incitement” to get headlines.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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