FILE - Jamal Zahalka, an Israeli-Arab lawmaker, yells during a session in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, Feb. 8, 2016.
FILE - Jamal Zahalka, an Israeli-Arab lawmaker, yells during a session in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, Feb. 8, 2016.

TEL AVIV - For decades Israel has prided itself as the only real democracy in the Middle East, but some senior Israeli officials are saying newly proposed legislation could tarnish that image.

This week, the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee introduced a controversial bill that would allow 90 of the parliament’s 120 members to expel legislators who support armed struggle against Israel, incite racism and negate Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu initiated the proposed legislation after three Arab Knesset members met relatives of Palestinian assailants killed in clashes. Some of those attackers reportedly killed Israeli civilians.

The three lawmakers, Jamal Zahalka, Haneen Zoabi, and Basel Ghattas of the National Democratic Assembly, better known by its Hebrew acronym Balad, met the families in Jerusalem. First, they stood up and quietly recited the first chapter of the Koran “in memory of all the occupation’s victims,” they said in a statement. Then they tried to help their hosts retrieve the bodies of 10 assailants being held by police.

Israeli emergency services remove the body of an a
FILE - Israeli emergency services remove the body of an alleged Palestinian attacker in Jerusalem Friday, Feb. 19, 2016. The Palestinian stabbed two officers before he was shot and killed, police said.

Anti-Israeli attacks at issue

The action enraged Jews who in the past five months have been facing a surge of attacks.  “When members of Knesset stand at attention in memory of children’s murderers, we shall act just as people would do in Britain, Canada and the United States, if someone would stand [to pay tribute] to the memory of Jihadi John or other murderers,” Netanyahu said. A democracy has a right to defend itself, he added.

Balad is a small party and champions turning the State of Israel into a "state of all of its citizens." Its previous leader, Azmi Bishara, left the country when security services suspected him of passing intelligence to Hezbollah, considered by much of the West as a terrorist organization.

The chairman of the Knesset’s law committee, Nissan Slomiansky, said that Israeli laws already prohibit support of an armed struggle against Israel, incitement of racism and negating Israel’s existence as a Jewish-democratic state. Knesset members who violate these laws cannot claim parliamentary immunity so the causes for eviction are “reasonable."  

Israeli settler boys throw stones during clashes w
Israeli settler boys throw stones during clashes with Palestinians after a stabbing attack outside the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba in the West Bank, Friday, Oct. 9, 2015.

‘Shame on you’

Right wing legislators supported the motion, sometimes wholeheartedly.  

Oded Forer of the secularist and right-wing nationalist political party Israel Beitenu blasted the Arab legislators. “Shame on you who do not condemn terror, who support it and think they ought to be in this house,” he said.   

Nava Boker of Netanyahu’s Likud faction said “whoever stands for a moment of silence to the memory of murderers, causes 13 and 14-year-old children to go to the streets and murder Jews.”

To ensure continued democratic representation, the bill provides that a dismissed legislator be replaced by the next person on their list of candidates. In last year’s elections, Balad and three other Arab parties were afraid that by running separately they might not pass the threshold for entering the parliament, so they formed the Joint Arab List.  But, if all three legislators of Balad are evicted, only one Balad member would enter the Knesset. The next two people on the joint list are from the Islamic movement.  

The bill’s critics warned of a slippery slope. “Today Arabs are unwanted and tomorrow it will be leftists,” said Zehava Gal’on of the left-wing Meretz party.

Israeli police officers inspect the scene of a sta
FILE - Israeli police officers inspect the scene of a stabbing attack in Beit Shemesh, central Israel, Oct. 22, 2015.

'Problematic' legislation

The most prominent critic was Israeli President Reuven Rivlin who said proposed legislation showed “a problematic understanding of parliamentary democracy. The Knesset should not be a body that investigates and punishes.”

The non-partisan think tank Israel Democracy Institute agreed, noting that legislators “are not professional judges but members of parliament who have political interests.”

Opposition legislators argued that the proposed law is superfluous since the causes cited for eviction are criminal acts and convicted offenders would be removed from the Knesset anyway.

Miki Rosenthal of the Zionist Camp said the law could, however, be used to intimidate members, “to silence uncomfortable views.”

“We are here to represent our community, democratically. There were elections,” Ahmad Tibi of the Joint Arab List told the committee. “You can agree or disagree, love or not love what they are doing,” but the proposed law is a parliamentary translation of the slogan “Death to the Arabs,” he said.

The bill is expected to go to the full Knesset next week for the first of three plenum votes.

Special Project

More Coverage