Let’s start with the obvious: The well-publicized visit by Arab Knesset members Hanin Zoabi, Basel Ghattas and Jamal Zahalka (Balad Party) to the families of terrorists who attacked and murdered Jews — and especially the moment of silence they observed for the murderers who were celebrated as martyrs — is infuriating. Such actions are also damaging; they harm the fragile fabric of relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel, increase the rifts between them and impede the ability to create a shared and equal society.
The public demand for Israel’s elected officials to “do something” is understandable. It is commendable that the Knesset Ethics Committee took significant steps to punish the offenders and that the attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, decided to examine the legality of the visit.
However, the legislative initiative that is taking shape — and that was presented to the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee this week — is fundamentally flawed. Legislators have proposed an amendment to Basic Law: The Knesset would allow a majority of Knesset members to suspend a fellow MK for rejecting Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state, inciting racism or supporting armed struggle against Israel. The legislation in question was formulated in haste. This is no way to go about altering the constitutional foundations of our state. Such a change requires serious reflection, research and analysis of its long-term implications. The idea of giving a legislative body quasi-judicial authority, when it is not equipped with the basic tools necessary for examining the facts, discussing the evidence, and hearing the arguments on both sides, makes no sense. The Knesset is a political body; it is not designed to function as a court. Accordingly, it does not have the ability to undertake this task.
Further, giving politicians the authority to suspend other politicians will inevitably introduce irrelevant political considerations into the process. Similar incidents in the future can be expected to become media festivals that will only serve to intensify the alienation between Arabs and Jews. Moreover, Knesset members suspended by the Knesset will be able to portray themselves as victims and slander Israel by claiming that Arab citizens do not have full equality in Israel. Suspensions of Arab Knesset members may further alienate and distance the Arab community from Israel’s political system, causing further damage to Israel’s social solidarity and legitimacy as a vital and vibrant democracy.
It is also important to understand that the reported grounds for suspending the offending members of Knesset are already enshrined in Article 7 of Basic Law: The Knesset. This article empowers the Israeli Central Elections Committee, which is made up of politicians but functions as a judicial body, to disqualify individual candidates and party lists from running in national elections. Unlike the Knesset, however, the procedures of the Central Elections Committee are run by a Supreme Court judge who serves as its legal adviser. In addition, court approval is required for an extreme decision to disqualify a candidate or list. The procedure includes hearing evidence, serious deliberation and consideration of all relevant factors and the character of the candidate or list.
In the past, the Central Elections Committee has disqualified lists such as Meir Kahane’s Kach (1984) and the Arab Socialist List (1965), using the sanctions currently available to the Knesset’s Ethics Committee and other existing tools of Israel’s law enforcement agencies for dealing with activities of Knesset members that endanger the security of the state. While it might make sense to sharpen some of these tools, there is no need for a law as draconian as the one proposed.
Finally, we must remember that extreme actions by any member of Knesset undermine the principle of a shared civil society and harm Israel’s legitimacy as a democracy. Clearly, the three Balad MKs demonstrated they are not partners for promoting a vision for a joint society. However, the proposed legislation will not serve to encourage the emergence of visionary leadership on either side.
Yohanan Plesner is a former Knesset member and president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a non-partisan think tank.