Keeping MKs in line

The spectacle of MKs thumbing their noses at the law is bad for the country and doubly disastrous for the Knesset.

Knesset building with State symbol 300 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Knesset building with State symbol 300
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
When any Knesset member sets out with premeditation to break the law from the Knesset plenum, he/she should not automatically expect to get away with it due to the extensive immunity accorded MKs, Knesset Legal Adviser Eyal Yinon warned this week. He counseled MKs not to automatically perceive the Knesset as a prosecution-free zone.
In itself that is a refreshing elucidation and reassessment of the sweeping personal immunity from legal jeopardy conferred upon MKs.
Political lore traces this particular feature of our system all the way back to prewar Poland. Its original aim was foremost to protect MKs from harassment by the powers-that-be. Mistrust of the once omnipotent Mapai was so great that it fanned fears of detentions on trumped-up pretexts to keep opposition lawmakers, for example, from arriving on time to the House for key votes. That resulted in immunity so broad that it once shielded MKs even from Traffic Court.
But times have changed radically and MKs’ immunity now remains applicable chiefly in cases that ostensibly involve the performance of their’s duties. Nevertheless, this less-encompassing version of parliamentary immunity also leaves lots of leeway for cynical abuse.
Yinon’s comments came in the wake of the furor stirred by MKs Zehava Gal-On (Meretz), Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta’al) and Dov Henin (Hadash) when they exploited Knesset question time (televised live) to ask about “Prisoner X,” Ben Zygier. The court-mandated gag order was then still in place. All three invoked their immunity and appeared quite delighted to have pulled off a clever stunt.
While Yinon stressed that his opinion is not linked to any specific incident, he is seen as having rapped the three lightly on the knuckles when he argued that, as distinct from an outburst in the heat of the moment, a calculated and conscious decision to breach the law via a statement in the Knesset does not necessarily fall under the protection of parliamentary immunity. Legislators might well find themselves as legally liable as would any ordinary citizen.
As expected, Yinon’s opinion drew heavy fire from opposition benches, especially on the Left.
Nonetheless, Yinon’s legal interpretation should have a sobering effect on heady MKs who have come to trust that they can resort to any illegal mischief with impunity.
Experience indeed shows that Israel’s parliamentary immunity was successfully exploited by many legislators, frequently from the Arab sector. Most notable were Balad MK Haneen Zoabi’s participation in the Mavi Marmara provocation of 2010 and Tibi’s numerous excursions on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.
It is safe to assume that Yinon’s learned paper will not deter anyone, especially as no sanction is likely against Gal-On, Tibi and Henin.
Arguing that the law is wrong and deserves to be violated is no defense but a call for anarchic disobedience on any matter not to the liking of any given politician.
The news blackout on the Zygier case, whether one agrees with it or not, was legally obtained and approved by our justice system throughout. It could have been challenged via a written parliamentary query. The fact that three MKs together opted for a televised plenum session indicates not only aforethought but collusion.
This is hardly trivial or funny. Some of our Knesset committees – especially select Foreign Affairs and Defense subcommittees – are entrusted with super-sensitive classified information. What if any MK would consider it a lark to openly divulge state secrets? Already there is great reluctance to share confidential material with key Knesset committees because of their reputations for “leaking like a sieve.”
Defiant noncompliance with the law under the parliamentary immunity shield would justify increasing inclinations to keep our lawmakers in the dark.
The Knesset needs to keep its members more reasonably in line. It needs to deter impudent unruliness much more convincingly. The spectacle of MKs thumbing their noses at the law when it suits their agenda is not only bad for the country. It is doubly disastrous for the Knesset, because when the Knesset loses the trust of other government branches, it will undermine its own ability to oversee and to influence.