The initiative to use the new law allowing 90 lawmakers to vote to remove a colleague from office for the first time against MK Basel Ghattas (Joint List) who is suspected of sneaking a cellphone to Palestinian security prisoners, seemed to fail even before it got off the ground Monday.
Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin began the process delineated in the law to bring about a vote to impeach an MK – which involves gathering 70 signatures, 10 of which must come from the opposition – and calls for a hearing in the Knesset House Committee.
However, opposition party leaders said they prefer to let the criminal justice process take its course, rather than support impeachment.
Police plan to interrogate Ghattas on Tuesday morning, Channel 2 reported. Ghattas has been barred from leaving the country to prevent him from fleeing, as did his cousin, former MK Azmi Bishara, when he was suspected of giving information to Hezbollah during the Second Lebanon War.
Arab MK Ghattas speaks at Knesset in keffiyeh
Elkin called Ghattas’s actions “the classic example of crossing a redline, for which the impeachment law was proposed with support from the prime minister. I turned to 119 MKs and asked them to join this initiative.” The Likud minister explained that the impeachment process can begin immediately, while waiting for the criminal justice system to convict Ghattas of a crime with moral turpitude, thus automatically ending his tenure as an MK, could take years.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu supported Elkin’s effort, saying at a Likud faction meeting that he would sign the petition. Netanyahu said the allegations against Ghattas “require an in-depth investigation.
If the suspicions turn out to be true, this is a very serious crime against national security.
Whoever harms the security of the State of Israel must be severely punished, and whoever identifies with those who want to destroy the State of Israel does not belong in the Knesset.”
The Impeachment Law can be used to remove an MK on grounds of incitement to violence or racism, and support for armed conflict against Israel, which are among the reasons cited in the Basic Law: Knesset for banning a party or person from running.
Should Elkin successfully gather the requisite signatures, the House Committee would hold a hearing, and if it finds that Ghattas should be removed, a vote would be held in the plenum. Ghattas could be finally removed from the Knesset if 90 MKs vote to do so.
However, he would retain the right to petition the High Court of Justice against the decision.
Ghattas is under investigation for smuggling phones to two Fatah prisoners in Ketziot Prison in the Negev, one of whom is reportedly serving a 37-year sentence. He is expected to be questioned by the police, but a date for the interrogation has not been set.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan told Army Radio that the recipients of the cellphones are not minor figures or “rock-throwers,” rather are major terrorists and implied that they are well-known figures seen as leaders by Palestinians and some Israeli Arabs.
On Monday, Joint List MK Ayman Odeh responded to the allegations against Ghattas saying the accusations “are extremely serious, and for this reason must be evaluated by an investigation, and not in a side-court of Knesset members.
Odeh said the suspicions have led to attempts to “incite against the entire Arab public, and attempts to hinder the rights and immunity of Knesset members.”
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid took an initiative of his own Monday, writing a letter to the attorney-general asking him to work toward removing Ghattas’s parliamentary immunity.
The attorney-general has the authority to remove an MK’s immunity if there is material to indict him or her, and the MK has the right to appeal to the Knesset House Committee against the decision.
“I understand there is an attempt to use the Impeachment Law. Forgive me, but that is an idiotic move,” Lapid argued. “That is not how you fight against someone who aids terrorism.”
Referring to the option of Ghattas appealing the High Court of Justice against his impeachment, Lapid said the process “will take three years of legal battles and block any other process. “If Ghattas did what he is suspected of doing, he is a pathetic traitor who must sit in prison, not spend the next few years traveling the world and complaining about political persecution,” Lapid stated.
Netanyahu said he’s not surprised at Lapid’s response. “I’m not surprised, because he is a left-wing man at the head of a left-wing party. Yair Lapid tries to hide this simple fact, but...
it is now exposed to all. I hope he will change his mind, but the public will surely make up its mind about him, as well,” Netanyahu stated.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) also said the legal process is the way to remove Ghattas from the Knesset, and called to wait for the end of his investigation. Still, Herzog said, “whoever is found to be acting in treachery and to harm national security belongs between prison walls and not between the Knesset’s walls.”
Similarly, Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal-On called the allegations against Ghattas “severe and serious,” but said she will not take part in the coalition “taking advantage of its power...
to create a field court martial and deny groups representation in the Knesset.”
Asked whether opposition parties’ refusal to cooperate makes his initiative a non-starter, Elkin said he’s starting with the coalition, and then he will work on persuading opposition MKs. The chairmen of all coalition factions signed his petition.
Ghattas said the investigation is “another chapter in the political persecution of the Arab public’s leaders and their political activities. “The police is trying to break Balad’s spirit and harm its political activities,” he added. “The police ordered me to an interrogation at the Lahav [433 special investigations unit] a few days ago, but has not set a date for the investigation. Arab MKs’ visits with prisoners are coordinated with the Prisons Service and with the Public Security Ministry’s authorization.
I have nothing to hide and I will continue to represent the Arab public through legitimate political activity.”
Balad is the party within the Joint List of which Ghattas is a member.
The Knesset House Committee held an emergency meeting to discuss Ghattas, unrelated to the Impeachment Law. MK Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin (Zionist Union) called for all MKs to be checked when they enter prisons.
MKs Oded Forrer (Yisrael Beytenu) and Elazar Stern (Yesh Atid) asked Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein to change the Knesset’s regulations so that MKs are checked upon entering the House.
“Smuggling phones to prisoners is giving weapons to terrorists that will lead to innocents being killed. Whoever takes advantage of his parliamentary immunity to give phones or weapons to terrorists could use his immunity to bring weapons into the Knesset,” Stern argued.
House Committee legal adviser Arbel Asterhan said that MK visits to prison are not explicitly covered by parliamentary immunity, but they generally have freedom of movement.
However, prison guards are told not to check MKs. The House Committee has the authority to change both matters through the Parliamentary Immunity Law, he explained.
There are other options for lawmakers to sanction fellow MKs, via the Knesset Ethics Committee, such as suspending them from the Knesset and docking their salaries or stripping them of their diplomatic passports.
Eliyahu Kamisher contributed to this report.
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