Israel's Knesset is the sole democracy of the Middle East. But if this new Bill goes through, it won't be much longer

The Bill threatens to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters and spark an Arab boycott of elections

Donald Macintyre
Wednesday 02 March 2016 18:33 GMT
The Knesset chamber in Jerusalem
The Knesset chamber in Jerusalem (Itzik Edri/Creative Commons)

As the Knesset’s Speaker Yuli Edelstein fulfilled his invitation from his British counterpart John Bercow in Westminster yesterday, it may have crossed his mind that the parliament he presides over has embarked on a process which would be inconceivable in the House of Commons.

This week a Bill which would change an Israeli Basic Law to allow a three-quarters majority of Knesset members to dismiss an MP for various acts including incitement to racism and “negating” Israel’s status as a Jewish and democratic state – cleared its first hurdle.

The “Suspension Bill”, appalling Israeli liberals and criticised by the country’s President Reuven Rivlin, is widely seen as opening up the possibility of expelling Arab MPs on ideological grounds, or for statements which simply outrage a majority of their Jewish colleagues.

The London visit by Edelstein – who, like Rivlin, is a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party provoked protests because he is a West Bank Israeli settler. To be fair, last month he too denounced the Bill. But then he changed his mind.

By then, of course, Netanyahu had thrown his full weight behind passage of the legislation, which he had earlier initiated during the fierce row over the meeting of three Arab MPs in the Balad faction with families of Palestinians killed after stabbing Israelis, in a recent wave of attacks. The meeting was to discuss the families’ demand for the bodies of their loved ones to be returned to them for burial.

In fact the Bill, if passed, will undermine Israel’s just claim to be a full democracy in a region dominated by autocracies – the cornerstone of the claim is the Knesset presence of MPs representing most of the 20 per cent of Israeli citizens who are Arab.

As the former minister and Knesset member Rabbi Michael Melchior put it, in a devastating Haaretz critique, since Second World War there has been no “precedent in the entire democratic world” of such ousting of MPs even “for statements of support for bitter enemies”, including of “delusional” British MPs who “supported Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War”.

Indeed, it is easy to imagine a large majority of MPs, with many Labour ones leading the way, being tempted to expel, say, George Galloway for some of his statements, often more provocative than those of Arab Knesset members. Except parliamentary privilege – broadly hitherto operative in Israel, too – makes that unthinkable.

To preserve their presence in Israel’s proportional electoral system, a single Joint Arab list was created last year, of which Ayman Odeh is the leader. Declaring that “we are elected by our people and not by the right wing”, Odeh (a member of Hadash, a party which includes a Jewish MP) warned that if the Balad Knesset members were expelled, he too might resign.

The 41-year-old Odeh, recently and warmly profiled in the New Yorker magazine, has already emerged as one of the rising – and saner – figures in Israeli politics. At a recent talk at the Jerusalem Press Club, which he conducted in Hebrew, he impressed not only by the measured way he defended his Balad colleagues, or expressed anxiety over whether the government’s much needed multi-billion dollar fund for developing Arab communities (which he helped to design) would actually bear fruit, but in his many cross-cultural references. After listing his favourite Palestinian poets, for example, he more surprisingly quoted Hebrew lines from another poet he admires, the great Zionist and socialist Shaul Tchernichovsky.

For Odeh and its many Jewish critics, the Suspension Bill threatens to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Israeli voters. But it could also be used to intimidate MPs, perhaps eventually in left-wing Zionist parties like Meretz too, from criticising an unprecedentedly right-wing government too harshly, and possibly provoking a future Arab boycott of elections. That could lead Arab citizens to turn to more dangerous means of expressing their already deep frustration.

The Bill may not get a Knesset majority this time. But Netanyahu’s promotion of it is another stark sign to Israel’s Arab citizens – like his pre-election warning last year that they were “running to the polling stations in droves”. And it reminds us of his belief that a full share in Israel’s democracy is not a right, but a privilege which can be denied, further eroding the promise by Israel’s founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence that it would “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex”.

  • Paragraph two of this article has been amended. It originally referred to the bill enabling the suspension of an MP for “inappropriate behaviour”. In fact this vague provision was dropped from the bill in February. It now proposes to enable suspension for acts in three categories: incitement to racism or violence; support for armed conflict against Israel; and negating Israel’s status as a Jewish and democratic state. Many critics nevertheless remain vehemently opposed.

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