A widening divide

As Jewish MKs unite behind the war, their Arab colleagues are testing limits of freedom of speech.

Tibi 298.88 (photo credit: )
Tibi 298.88
(photo credit: )
On the day the rockets began to rain onto northern Israel, Knesset members could do little but sit, glued to the televisions in the Knesset cafeteria, and give half-hearted predictions on the war that everyone was afraid to name. For many MKs, that day three weeks ago was the beginning of a newly unified Knesset. The calls for a national unity government, which would bring all political parties together and create a broad wartime coalition, may have gone unheeded - but in the days to come Opposition Leader Binyamin Netanyahu became the government's unofficial spokesman and earned the nickname "the un-opposition leader." "We all, all of us here at the Knesset, stand united by our forces," announced Netanyahu during an emergency session of the Knesset this Monday morning. Several minutes later, however, he was forced to change his statement to "most of us here at the Knesset" when three Arab MKs were ejected from the Knesset after yelling out "child killer," "war crimes" and "Israeli hate machine" in quick unison. Even during that first day around the crowded TVs, there were 10 faces notably missing. Absent, because instead of watching Israeli news, they were locked in their offices, tuning in to Al-Jazeera on their computers to gauge the reaction from the Arab world - their world, and the world of their constituency. In the weeks to come, Arab MKs were to become further ostracized from the rest of the Knesset, leading many to wonder if the Balad, Ra'am-Ta'al, Hadash and United Arab List parties would have a future in the Knesset. "For a long time there has been discussion about whether these MKs fit into the Israeli Knesset framework," said MK Zevulun Orlev, (National Union-National Religious Party). "Especially during a time of war, when patriotism and support of the government are the chief concerns of the Knesset, these Arab MKs - who support terror networks - do not belong in the Knesset." Barely a week before the Knesset began its recess, Orlev had pushed through a first reading on a law that would evict MKs from the Knesset if they voice support of terror organizations. Several months in the making, Orlev's law enjoyed various levels of support, but the MK acknowledges that with the start of the war, there was a sudden burst of support for the bill. "During this difficult time, when the IDF is struggling to fight against terror, there are Arab MKs clearly supporting and encouraging terror organizations such as Hamas," said Orlev. "Whoever wants to support these organizations can go join the Palestinian Authority's parliament - now is their chance because the PA is missing a few parliament members right now," he added dryly, referencing the June 26 arrests of PA parliamentarians. According to the bill, the Knesset House Committee - with the approval of the Supreme Court - could cancel the membership of any MK who "identified with or supported" a terror organization. In the first vote, many of the government's Kadima and Gil MKs joined the right-wing Likud, Israel Beitenu, NU-NRP, Shas and United Torah Judaism in voting for the law. The bill must still pass a second and third vote before it becomes law, but the Arab MKs have already banded together to call it the "most racist legislature to come out of the Knesset in years." "Now, especially now, in a time of war, when the Arab MKs still feel like they can say anything, it is important to have a bill like this," said an Israel Beitenu spokesman. Israel Beiteinu had originally urged Orlev to impose even more stringent limitations on Arab MKs' rights to speak in public forums, nationally and internationally. Since the recent violence began, Arab MKs have been slammed for failing to support the Israeli Defense Forces. "Israel has declared war on the citizens of Lebanon and the massacre in Kafr Kana is part of that. Those responsible have committed a war crime and should be tried in The Hague. The world must act quickly to stop the Olmert-Peretz-Halutz war machine," said MK Jamal Zahalka (Balad) during a Knesset session on Monday. He, along with MK Taleb a-Sanaa and MK Ibrahim Sarsur (Ra'am-Ta'al), were all ejected from that session by Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik for "constant disruptions to the proceeding order." As the three left the plenum, many MKs shouted at them that their final exit would not be far away. "I will not stop until I see you thrown out of the Knesset and the State of Israel," yelled out MK Effie Eitam (NU-NRP). There have always been Arab MKs in parliament; three Arabs served in the first Knesset. However, the past Knesset session has seen a steady and serious deterioration in relations between them and the rest of the parties. "This Knesset has clearly been one of the worst for Arab MKs," said MK Taleb a-Sanaa. "There is a serious deterioration in this Knesset in the treatment of Arab MKs… It is racism." Many have speculated on why the relationship has deteriorated so badly over the 17th Knesset. In many ways, acknowledged a-Sanaa, the Arab MKs walk with one foot in each world, trying to please both their constituents and their colleagues in the Knesset. "They [the Knesset] treat us like we are traitors and our own Arab brothers treat us like we are traitors," said a-Sanaa. There has also been a growing trend in the media of treating the Knesset as a theater, said one Kadima MK, leading many MKs to treat it as such. "Some of those outbursts feel so staged," said this MK, who acknowledged it was something he did as well. "The Arab MKs have to do it to make the news and keep their constituents. And the right-wingers have to oppose to keep their constituents. It's all a big game… it gets bigger with every camera." Knesset relations with Arab MKs in the 17th session began "on the wrong foot," said a-Sanaa, who blamed the Israel Beitenu party for making Arab MKs feel as "un-welcomed" as possible. Israel Beitenu Leader Avigdor Lieberman threw the first gauntlet with a controversial speech comparing Arab MKs to Nazi war collaborators during the first week of this Knesset in April. Over the next few weeks, the verbal battles between Israel Beitenu and Arab MKs escalated until the two parties could barely sit in the plenum together without Itzik calling the two to order. At that time, MK Ahmad Tibi (United Arab List) said their fight was with Israel Beitenu, and that the rest of the Knesset was "stepping aside from that racist party." As the war ended its third week, however, Israel Beitenu seemed as much a part of the government as the parties within the actual coalition, and Lieberman was heard lauding Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for his "brave leadership." On Monday, the three evicted MKs sat in the now deserted cafeteria. The remotes were at their disposal, but the Knesset televisions apparently weren't receiving the Arabic news networks.