Feb 27th 2016
ON FEBRUARY 23rd, a committee of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, began debating a new law which will allow it to suspend its own members for “expressing support for terrorism”. While the law is not specifically directed at any political faction, its thrust is clear. It was tabled by the government in response to a meeting three weeks ago between three Israeli-Arab Knesset members and the families of a number of Palestinians who had been killed while attacking Israelis.
The members of Balad, an Arab-nationalist party, also took part in a moment’s silence in memory of the young Palestinians. By calling them “martyrs”, the MPs enraged many Jews who regard the killers as terrorists; in one incident, assailants killed two Israelis on a bus. While the meeting was undoubtedly provocative, the move by the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, to adopt powers to banish the Arab MPs from parliament is seen by his critics as an assault on Israel’s democracy and an attempt to disenfranchise Israel’s Arab minority, who make up 20% of the population (excluding Palestinians in the territories occupied in 1967).
The law has been criticised by Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, a member of Mr Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, who made a rare intervention in the legislative procedure on February 15th, saying that the law “sins against the meaning of the Knesset…. it sins against the voting public.”
Mr Netanyahu is surely aware that the law is unlikely ever to pass all the necessary legislative stages of the Knesset; if it does, it is liable to be struck down by the Supreme Court; and even if it gets past the court it is unlikely ever to be used because it requires a three-quarters majority of the Knesset to agree to any suspension.
Yet it is part of a verbal campaign Mr Netanyahu stands accused of waging against Israel’s Arab minority since last year’s general election. In a message broadcast on Election Day, Mr Netanyahu warned right-wing voters that “Arab voters are flowing in droves to the polls.”
He later expressed regret over that message but recently he linked an attack in Tel Aviv, in which an Israeli Arab murdered three Israelis, to “lawlessness” in Arab towns. He also instructed two conservative ministers to draw up a list of tough conditions that Arab local councils must adhere to in order to get money from a $3.8 billion programme designed to improve conditions in the Arab sector.
Most Israelis take great pride in their democracy, which is committed to equal rights for Jews and non-Jews, and features the representation of Israeli Arabs in such bodies as the Supreme Court. Some argue that the suspension law undermines this; as does another law being proposed by the Netanyahu government, which will force NGOs that receive most of their funding from foreign governments to say so prominently in all their publications.
This, too, is ostensibly a community-blind law, but in reality targets human-rights and pro-Palestinian groups, as they tend to be the ones receiving such funding. Settlers’ groups are also often funded from outside Israel, by Jewish philanthropists and evangelical Christian movements; but the law will not affect them, as their money does not come from governments.