New bill would condition Knesset electability on completion of military service

Palestinian citizens cannot be expected to serve an institution that protects the Jewish identity of the state. If Israel prohibits its Palestinian citizens from participating in elections, it would cease to function as a democracy, and it would lose its case against claims of apartheid.

By Fady Khoury

The media reported this week that MK Moshe Matalon (Yisrael Beiteinu) has introduced a new bill prohibiting citizens who have not completed military, national or civil service from being elected to the Knesset. This bill joins an array of several other bills proposed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, which condition civil and social rights upon completion of military service.

The new bill is an amendment to the Basic Law: the Knesset, in which the right to be elected is provided to all citizens 21 years of age and older. The condition of completing army service aims to exclude from elections Palestinian citizens who are categorically exempt from military service, and Haredi Jews who do not enlist in the army.

The implications of this bill on what’s left of Israeli democracy, if the Knesset approves it, are obviously devastating, in that it moves Israel closer if not fully turning it into an apartheid state. The Israeli Hasbara efforts in the international arena to refute any claims of apartheid practices against Palestinians rely solely on the fact the distinctions it makes are based on citizenship status and not on ethnicity. This in turn means that if Israel prohibits its Palestinian citizens from participating in elections, it would cease to function as a democracy, and its case against claims of apartheid would lose its main arguments.

One might argue that the Palestinians can always do national service – a state community work program – if military service is considered to be unacceptable as a result of its link to the Israeli occupation of the West bank and Gaza Strip. This notion assumes a duty that is unacceptable in my view. The IDF is an organization that aims to uphold and protect the Jewish nature of the state and not only the occupation of the Palestinian territories. Those who are invested in the Jewish nature of the state can be morally obligated to serve in the army and protect it, since they constitute the group that gains from its protection. The Palestinian citizens cannot be morally expected to protect the Jewish identity of the state since they are not represented in it, but rather suffer from it. This in turn leads to the conclusion that as long as the state is formally identified as Jewish, those who are Jewish can be expected and obligated to sacrifice in order to maintain it, while those who are not invested in maintaining it must be morally exempt from such an obligation, and from any alternative obligations.

The notion of equality in rights in exchange for equality in duties is not disturbed by my analysis. In the Jewish state, the Jews are afforded the right to a state based on their collective identity features in exchange for sacrificing three years of their lives. A transition towards a bi-national state might give rise to the Palestinian citizens’ moral obligation to serve in the army and as I have put it elsewhere, to be “Good Citizens.”

Also, the fact that the bill’s wording relies on military or national service and does not specifically mention Palestinians is irrelevant. Indirect methods of targeting a group are equally forbidden, and the mere choice of a criterion that applies mainly to the Palestinians is enough to render it discriminatory.

This bill thus has little to no chance of passing, which raises a question as to Yisrael Beiteinu’s motives in introducing it. One possible explanation is that Yisrael Beiteinu’s Knesset members are aware of this fact and aim to gain political points with their target audience in preparation for the 2013 elections. One must not forget that Yisrael Beiteinu’s previous election was based on the promise to “deal” with the Palestinians in Israel, summed up by their slogan, “Only Lieberman understands Arabic.” This bill is Lieberman’s way to show his voters that he kept his end of the bargain.

Or maybe Yisrael Beiteinu MKs are simply blinded by their neo-fascist agenda and are willing to sacrifice the most sacred democratic value of all – the right to participate in the democratic process – in the name of patriotism.

Nevertheless, assuming this bill does fail, I expect Yisrael Beiteinu’s attempts at diminishing Palestinian representation in the Knesset to reappear in the form of a request to the Central Elections Committee (CEC) to disqualify Palestinian parties from participating in the upcoming 2013 elections. Noam Sheizaf predicts in this “death of democracy” scenario that the CEC will likely disqualify MK Haneen Zoabi, and the decision might go either way for her party, Balad. Sheizaf also thinks that Raam-Taal – MK Ahmad Tibi’s party –will be disqualified by the CEC’s decision, which will be overturned by the Supreme Court.

I’m more pessimistic than Sheizaf. I think that the CEC will disqualify all Palestinian parties. The recent tendency of the Supreme Court to avoid conflict with other branches of government might lead it to uphold the CEC decision this time, in contrast with previous rulings to overturn the committee’s decisions in both the 2003 and 2009 elections. My pessimism is based on recent High Court’s rulings, the latest of which upholds the Citizenship Law despite its apparent violation of Palestinian citizens’ right to unite with their spouses from the Palestinian territories, and live as a family in Israel. The ruling of the majority, which contains legal mistakes and anomalies, overturned the previous court’s decision regarding the right to establish a family in Israel as a constitutional right. This shows that the court is not only avoiding intervention where intervention is required in order to protect human rights, but, as Prof. Aeyal Gross put it in this article [in Hebrew], that it is regressing in its perception of what human rights include. I expect that the High Court’s new approach will lead when it considers the disqualification of Palestinian parties, probably resulting in affirming the CEC’s decisions.

One thing is certain though – Israeli democracy, or what remains of it, is in jeopardy. The recent right-wing extremists’ initiatives are merely the tip of the iceberg, and once they receive more support from the public and are reelected, we will witness the slipperiest slope this country has ever known.

Fady Khoury is a legal intern at Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not Adalah.