Balad MKs banned from Knesset debates for meeting terrorists' families

Coalition parties back PM's proposal to allow three-fourths of House Committee and then Knesset vote to suspend MKs.

MKs Ayman Oudeh, Jamal Zahalke, Basel Ghattas and Haneen Zoabi at Knesset committee (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
MKs Ayman Oudeh, Jamal Zahalke, Basel Ghattas and Haneen Zoabi at Knesset committee
The Knesset Ethics Committee suspended Balad’s three MKs from all Knesset activity except for voting on Monday for up to four months, days after the lawmakers met with terrorists’ families.
Balad is one of the parties making up the Joint List.
MKs Haneen Zoabi and Basel Ghattas received four-month suspensions, and Balad chairman Jamal Zahalka, who has fewer past punishments from the committee, will be suspended for two months.
The panel received more than 450 complaints about the lawmakers, including from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, and from relatives of people killed by the terrorists whose families the Balad MKs met.
Last week, the three MKs met in east Jerusalem with 10 families of terrorists, whose bodies police have declined to give them for burial saying the families refuse to meet the condition of understated funerals to avoid incitement.
The MKs are also accused of having stood in a moment of silence for Palestinian “martyrs.”
The meeting was condemned by members of all the Knesset’s factions except the Joint List.
Also on Monday, coalition party leaders approved in principal a proposal by Netanyahu to allow 90 MKs to vote to suspend a of colleague.
“We have to keep limits and basic rules of behavior so that democracy will not turn into a suicide pact,” Netanyahu said at a Likud faction meeting, referring to a phrase written in a legal dissent by US Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson in 1949, that the right to incite to a riot does not fall under freedom of speech. (Jackson had served as the chief US prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials.) Democracy “must protect itself and defend itself,” the prime minister said.
Later, in the plenum, Netanyahu said: “I’m trying to imagine what would happen if a UK MP stood in a moment of silence for Jihadi John,” the late Islamic State executioner from England.
The prime minister said he is in favor of Israeli Arabs integrating in society and politics, and because of that, he does not accept MKs supporting those who murder Israelis.
“There’s a limit. There’s something called national pride,” he said.
A bill has not yet been submitted, but the coalition party leaders reviewed a draft that states that a lawmaker who “is not worthy of serving because of behavior that does not suit his status as an MK” can be suspended.
According to the draft, at least 61 lawmakers would have to complain to the Knesset House Committee, and the petition would move forward if three-fourths of the committee votes in favor. The panel would determine the length of the suspension.
The suspension would then move to the plenum, where it would have to be approved by three-quarters of the Knesset, meaning 90 MKs, in a special meeting that would only be about the suspension, called with 10 days’ notice.
The MK threatened with suspension would be given the opportunity to defend him or herself before the committee, or choose representation, but not by another legislator.
While a lawmaker is suspended, he or she will be replaced by the next person on the faction’s Knesset list.
The bill would need a 61-MK majority to become law, because it would be an amendment to Basic Law: The Knesset, and it would likely be challenged in the Supreme Court, which in recent years has overturned all Central Elections Committee efforts to ban any party or MK, including Balad.
Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh objected to the proposal, calling it undemocratic and saying only “the people” are entitled to vote its representatives into or out of the Knesset.
Odeh “condemned the wild incitement and delegitimization of the Arab population and its leaders.” He called the Balad MKs’ meeting with the relatives of terrorists “a humanitarian act.”
“We support the Palestinian people’s battle against the occupation and for a state, and we are against harm to innocent people,” he said.
“Anyone who fears for democracy must fight with us for democracy... and real peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Muhammad Barakei, chairman of the High-Follow Up Committee for the Arab Citizens of Israel and a former Hadash MK who was given the symbolic 120th place on the Joint List ahead of the 2015 election, called the proposal a plot to bring “racial purity” to the Knesset.
Barakei said he and the Joint List are for a “political struggle” as opposed to a violent one, but hinted that some Israeli Arabs may consider boycotting the political process, saying: “If someone wants it, we may consider contributing to that [racial] purity.”
Zahalka said the criticism of the meeting was disingenuous, because it was meant only to help the families get the bodies back. As proof of his intentions, Zahalka said Zoabi went immediately after the meeting to Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan with a chart detailing the conditions the families would be willing to meet.
“Zoabi, Ghattas and I wrote a letter to Netanyahu asking him to take back the incitement against us. You know, it’s hard to catch him telling the truth,” Zahalka said. “Instead of calming things down, the prime minister is inciting. We got threatening letters because of what he said.”
As for the moment of silence, Zahalka said it is a Palestinian tradition to stand and read a passage from the Koran called Sura al-Fatiha in memory of all fallen Palestinians. He did not, however, explain why the Balad Facebook page referred to a terrorist who killed three Israelis in October as a shaheed (martyr).
Other parties also opposed the bill, calling it undemocratic.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) said: “The public’s patience has run out. The MKs from Balad constantly provoke against the State of Israel and for terrorism...
They crossed a red line.”
He added, however, that the Knesset and the attorney-general have tools to deal with the matter, calling the proposal a slippery slope.
Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal-On also opposed the Balad MKs’ “provocative and damaging act,” but said the idea of a law to suspend MKs is “meant to exclude 20 percent of the country’s citizens.”
Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman, however, said he would support the legislation, saying that his faction will vote for it even though the coalition voted down a similar bill introduced by his party last year.
Earlier on Monday, the Knesset House Committee recommended that Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit open a criminal investigation against the Balad MKs and that the Knesset Ethics Committee give them a maximum punishment of a six-month suspension from all activity but voting and docking their salaries.
Mandelblit’s office said on Sunday he instructed police to collect information relating to the lawmakers’ visit to the families, and that no other action would be taken until receives initial information from police.
Deputy Attorney-General Raz Nizri told the House Committee that Mandelblit would decide on the matter in the coming days.
House Committee chairman David Bitan (Likud) insisted the Balad MKs had engaged in incitement, which is what fuels the current wave of terrorism.
Bitan also called Joint List MKs, who boycotted the committee meeting, “cowards who won’t face us.”
MK Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union) said “supporting terrorism in any way is unacceptable and those who do it should be out of the Knesset.”
She suggested, however, that rather than pass a law to suspend MKs, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon should declare Balad an illegal organization, and then they would not be able to run for the next Knesset.
MK Yisrael Eichler (United Torah Judaism) called to strengthen the Central Elections Committee, so that the Supreme Court will have to honor its decisions.
Eichler, hoverer, opposed the proposal to suspend legislators, saying that it will be used against Jews, because “the Arabs have the Supreme Court [to defend them], but Jews have no one.”
In light of the Joint List backing “this disgusting move of supporting terrorists,” MK Yoav Kisch (Likud) called for the NIS 15 billion the government recently pledged to strengthen Arab municipalities go straight to local authorities without involvement of Arab MKs.
The US and UK both have laws allowing their legislatures to expel members.
The British law, which applies to the House of Commons, was used three times in the 20th century, the last time in 1954, for MPs accused of corruption.
The American law, which is part of the US Constitution, was used twice in the 20th century in response to corruption. The last time was in 2002.