THE KNESSET building..
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The MK Suspension Bill that will go up for a first reading in the Knesset plenum this week is just the latest in a series of proposed laws that threaten to erode Israeli democracy.
The law would give a special majority of 90 out of 120 lawmakers the ability to suspend a fellow member of Knesset for incitement to violence or racism; support of armed conflict or terrorism against Israel; or negating Israel as a Jewish and democratic state – the same basic law categories that can be used to ban a party or person from running for parliament.
The idea for the bill was originally suggested by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after MKs from Balad, one of the parties making up the Joint List, met with the families of 10 terrorists whose bodies were being held by the police. The MKs stood for a moment of silence in memory of “Palestinian martyrs,” and the Balad Facebook page referred to the father of a terrorist who killed three Israelis as the father of a “martyr.”
While we abhor the abuse of the Knesset plenum and the abuse of parliamentary immunity, anti-democratic legislation is not the way forward.
If there are lawmakers who openly support terrorism, then there is adequate scope for the removal of their parliamentary immunity via the Knesset Ethics Committee and their prosecution through criminal proceedings.
The suspension law would allow for the removal of elected representatives of the public – and it is clear which public it is aimed at – should their opinions and actions not curry favor with the majority. That is not the nature of democracy.
While Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit said the law was constitutional, he issued poignant words of warning.
“There are inherent difficulties in trying peers on the basis of ideology while empowering a political majority of MKs to end the tenure of a sitting, lawfully elected Knesset member,” he said. “This law provides openings for harassment of the minority by the majority, thus thwarting the will of the voters.”
President Reuven Rivlin, too, has pointed out that “we cannot allow the Knesset, whose representatives are chosen by the public, to independently overturn the public’s choices,” and that “the Knesset cannot be allowed, as a legislative body to become judge and jury.”
“Such a situation,” Rivlin has pointed out, “will, over time, overstep and undermine its purpose, and the sole victim will be the State of Israel.”
Furthermore, a law that today passes aimed at one section of the public, tomorrow could be used against others.
“A Knesset that is able, even if justly, to today decide upon the cessation of the office of such representatives of the public, will tomorrow, unjustly do so to others, and then where will we be?” Rivlin said.
The Knesset would do well to heed those words of warning.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has defended the bill on the grounds that other countries such as the United States and Britain have mechanisms that can remove members of parliament.
However, it is worth noting that those measures have been used sparingly, and mostly for offenses such as corruption and misconduct.
Moreover, as Dr. Amir Fuchs of the Israel Democracy Institute points out, in the US, there are two main parties rather than a parliament made up of a wide range of parties and expelling a US congressman or senator would require his or her own party to vote against them, and there would be no question of ganging up on smaller parties as could be the case with the proposed Israeli law. Fuchs also notes another major difference: The First Amendment of the US Constitution protects free speech and it is not viable to expel a congressman or senator for statements alone, a situation that could well arise should the Suspension Law pass.
Israel must protect itself from those who take advantage of its democracy to destroy it, as Netanyahu said in defending the bill, but it has sufficient means at its disposal to do so without sacrificing democracy on the way.