ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 141

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Panel votes 14-2 to expel MK Cassif for Gaza genocide claims; now Knesset will vote

House Committee vote a ‘black day for Knesset,’ says Hadash-Ta’al chairman Tibi; ‘This is not freedom of speech, it is the freedom to betray your country,’ argues Likud’s Ofir Katz

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"

Lawmakers vote to expel MK Ofer Cassif from the Knesset during a meeting of the Knesset House Committee on January 30, 2024. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset Spokesperson)
Lawmakers vote to expel MK Ofer Cassif from the Knesset during a meeting of the Knesset House Committee on January 30, 2024. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset Spokesperson)

Members of the Knesset House Committee overwhelmingly supported a motion to expel Hadash-Ta’al party lawmaker Ofer Cassif on Tuesday, voting 14-2 to advance his impeachment to the Knesset plenum after two days of contentious debate.

The nearly unanimous decision was immediately condemned by Hadash-Ta’al chairman Ahmad Tibi, who called it “a black day for the Knesset,” and by the Labor party, which dismissed the entire process as “anti-democratic by nature.”

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.

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

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.

So far the lawmakers have gone through the first two steps of the process — submitting a letter signed by a minimum of 70 MKs and obtaining the support of at least three-quarters of the House Committee. While a specific date has not yet been announced, following Tuesday’s vote the impeachment proceedings are slated to move to the plenum, where a supermajority vote of 90 legislators is needed to suspend Cassif.

Yisrael Beytenu MK Oded Forer (left) and Hadash-Ta’al chairman Ahmad Tibi (right) argue during a meeting of the Knesset House Committee, January 30, 2024. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset Spokesperson)

Despite 85 lawmakers signing on to the letter calling for his ouster and 14 voting in favor in the House Committee, Deputy Attorney General Avital Sompolinsky told them on Tuesday that their efforts lacked a legal basis — stating that Cassif’s actions in signing the petition failed to “meet the narrow and specific” criteria needed to establish that he supported Hamas.

‘Shame and disgrace’

Sompolinsky’s and other speakers’ remarks were repeatedly interrupted by right-wing lawmakers like Likud MK Hanoch Milwidsky, who called her analysis a “shame and a disgrace,” and Likud MK Moshe Saada, who described Cassif’s remarks as a “call for action not only in Israel but abroad.”

“The man who compared Israel to Nazi rule is plotting a blood libel against the country and our moral and ethical duty is to show him the red card here,” Saada stated.

The hearing repeatedly descended into screaming matches between legislators, with Tibi being temporarily expelled from the room after yelling “you called to destroy all of Gaza” at Saada — who brought up the destruction of the residents of the Strip in an interview earlier this month.

“This is the regular ritual of supporters of terrorism in the Israeli Knesset: to support terrorism, glorify terrorists, legitimize harming IDF soldiers, and then when the sword is placed on their necks to say that they did not mean to, that they regretted it, and that they are peace activists,” argued committee chairman MK Ofir Katz (Likud). “This is not freedom of speech, it is the freedom to betray your country without paying for it.”

Knesset Legal Adviser Sagit Afik attends a House committee meeting on the request to remove MK Ofer Cassif from office, at the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament in Jerusalem on January 30, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

“I believe MK Cassif when he says he hates Hamas. But whoever supports the cessation of hostilities actually supports the armed struggle against the State of Israel,” added Likud MK Amit Halevi.

Otzma Yehudit MK Zvika Fogel, who was himself probed by police for terror incitement last year, contended that the issue was “not legal” and that Cassif’s signature on the petition constituted “nothing less than a betrayal” of the state.

Attack on democracy

MK Forer, who initiated the move to kick out Cassif, and his supporters were engaged in a “radical and anti-democratic” effort to “nullify the will of Hadash-Ta’al voters,” Tibi countered, warning that Cassif’s ouster “will set a precedent” allowing for the possible impeachment of “all the Arab MKs in the Knesset.”

“I wonder who hurts the country more, Ofer Cassif or Benjamin Netanyahu,” he continued. “Imagine if Kasif had transferred not millions, but NIS 3,000 to Hamas — a criminal indictment would have been filed against him.”

Under Netanyahu, Israel has allowed suitcases with millions in Qatari cash to enter Gaza through its crossings since 2018, in order to maintain its fragile ceasefire with the Hamas rulers of the Strip.

According to various reports, Netanyahu told a Likud faction meeting in early 2019 that those who oppose a Palestinian state should support the transfer of funds to Gaza, because maintaining the separation between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza would prevent a two-state solution.

Hard-right members of Netanyahu’s coalition who attended a right-wing conference on Sunday night aimed at promoting the resettlement of the Gaza Strip have also caused more damage to Israel than Cassif, Tibi continued, noting that cabinet ministers’ statements about transferring Palestinians were cited as proof of intent during the genocide case in The Hague.

“The only thing that remains equal between Arabs and Jews in the country is the right to vote,” Hadash-Ta’al MK Aida Touma-Suleiman said in defense of Cassif.

MK Ofer Cassif attends a Knesset House Committee meeting in Jerusalem on January 30, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“In fact, with today’s debate, the members of the Knesset are gnawing away at the remnants of democracy that remain,” she cautioned, accusing members of the committee of treating political opponents as “enemies” and trying to “silence the minority.”

A mistaken impeachment

The impeachment process was also panned by Yesh Atid lawmaker Merav Ben-Ari, who said it was a mistake to think that Knesset members could judge such a matter objectively.

While some members of Yesh Atid have supported the proceedings, others have come out against it, and on Tuesday morning, a party spokesman told The Times of Israel that the party’s MKs are free to vote as they see fit on the issue.

Despite this, the spokesman said that “Yesh Atid believes that Ofer Cassif should not be an MK in the Knesset. Just like Ministers Amichai Eliyahu and [Itamar] Ben Gvir.”

The party’s statement came a day after its MK Merav Cohen tweeted that while she dislikes Cassif’s positions, “it is not the role of Knesset members to depose other Knesset members.”

“The move to impeach [Cassif] is populist, and its whole purpose is to push the case to the High Court of Justice, so that it will reject the impeachment, and then they can accuse it of ‘leftism/treason/something related to George Soros,’” she wrote.

Tuesday’s vote marked the first time that the Suspension Law has moved beyond the signature-gathering stage, but that does not mean that it will succeed in the Knesset plenum, United Torah Judaism Moshe Roth told The Times of Israel.

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Roth attends a party faction meeting in the Knesset, November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Despite voting for impeachment in the House Committee, Roth said that even if 90 lawmakers can be found to support the measure, expelling Cassif — whose actions during wartime fall “in the realm of treason” — will have little impact because he will only be replaced by someone “with the same ideas and with the same concepts.”

“I would never start an issue like this because I don’t see any value or any benefit at the end of the day for Israel by impeaching,” he said, expressing concern that it could set a precedent that could be used against other lawmakers representing minority communities.

Despite some lawmakers’ misgivings, Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman praised the House Committee’s decision, declaring that he now expected Netanyahu, as well as the leaders of Minister Benny Gantz’s National Unity party, “to support the final vote.”

“Every Knesset member in Israel will know that if he cooperates with our enemies and supports terrorism, he will find himself outside the Knesset,” Liberman said.

The vote was also welcomed by the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, whose leader, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, called it a clear statement that Israel has “zero tolerance toward instigators and supporters of terrorism, and certainly in the legislature.”

Tal Schneider contributed to this report.

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