On Monday, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein decided not to open criminal proceedings against MK Haneen Zoabi (Balad) for saying that the kidnappers of Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel weren’t terrorists. Weinstein noted that in that same interview she voiced her objection to the kidnapping, creating a “real doubt” about whether her statement broke the law; moreover, he said, indictments that restrict speech should be rare. But he added that his decision dealt only with the criminal aspects, and not the administrative or ethical ones.
Yesterday, the Knesset Ethics Committee used that statement to justify its decision to suspend Zoabi from plenum debates for six months, based on a law allowing MKs who violate the Knesset’s code of ethics to be suspended. Usually this panel only discusses statements made within the Knesset itself. It’s not the committee’s job to punish an MK for making political statements, however unpopular, and especially not when they were made outside the Knesset.
The committee based itself on a rule stating that an MK “is a public trustee whose duty is to represent his electorate in a way that promotes human dignity, social progress and the good of the state.” Though MKs can act on their own interpretation of the good of the state, it said, Zoabi’s statement, made at a very sensitive time, did not promote the good of the state, violated her obligation as a public trustee and undermined public faith in the Knesset.
In short, Knesset members believe there’s only one permissible view of what constitutes the good of the state, and not only does the majority determine what it is, but it also tries to prevent anyone with a different view from expressing it. This reveals a lack of understanding of substantive democracy and effectively replaces it with a dictatorship of the majority. There’s no one view of “the good of the state” in controversial issues, and anyone who says there is, while denying others the right to differ, is paving the way to fascism and tyranny.
One can disagree with Zoabi’s statement, but it was legal. Since she didn’t voice support for the abduction, she wasn’t supporting terror. Nor did another statement cited by the committee, one in favor of “popular resistance,” constitute a call for violence; as Zoabi has stressed repeatedly, it’s a call for nonviolent resistance.
The Ethics Committee must not become a forum for political persecution where the majority imposes its views on the minority. Letting the panel punish MKs for their views may well violate their substantive parliamentary immunity, which is supposed to protect them from legal repercussions for voicing opinions in the fulfillment of their parliamentary duties. Initially, this immunity was granted to protect MKs from political persecution by the executive, but today, protecting them from persecution by their colleagues is no less important. The High Court of Justice has stressed the importance of this immunity in preserving MKs’ independence, and especially in protecting the minority from the majority.
The last Knesset also stripped Zoabi of some of her parliamentary privileges, including her diplomatic passport, over her participation in a Turkish-sponsored flotilla to Gaza that turned violent. This decision was challenged in a High Court petition which argued that substantive immunity protects MKs not only against indictment, but also against sanctions imposed by the Knesset. The deliberations lasted three years, until the 18th Knesset was dissolved in 2013, at which point the court dismissed the petition on the grounds that it was now purely theoretical. It thereby missed an opportunity to state explicitly that the Knesset can’t punish MKs for political statements. It must be hoped that this time, it will overturn the Ethics Committee’s decision swiftly.
This decision appears to be part of a broader persecution of Israel’s Arab minority. The committee was used to delegitimize certain views, while not imposing sanctions on other MKs who made offensive statements – like Avigdor Lieberman, who called for boycotting Arab businesses, or Miri Regev, who called asylum seekers a “cancer.” The severity of the punishment also bolsters this contention. When former MK Menachem Porush termed Justice Mishael Cheshin “a pig,” the committee made do with a reprimand, and when former MK Aryeh Eldad said that anyone who cedes territory deserves death, he was suspended for just one day.
It’s regrettable that Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein – unlike his predecessor Reuven Rivlin, now the president, who spoke out against political persecution of Arab MKs in general and Zoabi in particular – was the person who led this latest move against Zoabi. This unacceptable and discriminatory decision, which seeks to impose artificial boundaries on the political discourse, is another stage in the dismantling of Israeli democracy.