New Israeli law seeks to expel ‘misbehaved’ Arab parliamentarians

Plenty of democratic countries have mechanisms for de-seating elected representatives, but those countries don’t have rich histories of trying to ban politicians of one ethnic group. And their laws weren’t designed to target specific unpopular politicians.

Haneen Zoabi is removed by Knesset security on February 8, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Haneen Zoabi is removed by Knesset security on February 8, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with the “Expulsion Law” passed by Israel’s Knesset early Wednesday morning. Lots of other parliaments have mechanisms for expelling elected representatives. In the U.S. Congress, all you need is a two-thirds majority vote determining that a member is guilty of “disorderly behavior.”

What is wrong with Israel’s new law is that it targets one particular parliamentarian and her party — who just happen to be elected representatives of Israel’s Palestinian citizens.

According to the new law, 70 (out of 120 members of Knesset, including 10 from the opposition) may ask a parliamentary committee to determine whether a specific member of parliament has incited to racism, or supported an armed struggle, terrorist organization or enemy against the State of Israel. The law does not define what “support” means. After the committee makes its decision, 90 MKs can then vote to expel the offending member.

Supporting a terrorist organization, supporting an armed struggle against the state, supporting the state’s enemies, and incitement to racism are all already criminal offenses under Israeli law. Furthermore, under existing Israeli law, an elected member of Knesset already loses their position if they are convicted of such a crime. So why the new law?

Under the new “Expulsion Law” a member of Knesset does not need to be convicted in a criminal court to be expelled. The high bar set by criminal law, proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, does not exist when a member of Knesset is “tried” by other politicians in a Knesset committee. Such committees can rule however they choose, and often do so along partisan, political, and in this case, ethnic and religious lines.

No burden of proof exists because nothing needs to be proved — just decided. Or in even clearer terms, the new law turns the most serious question of whether an elected representative of the people can be expelled from their position into an act of partisan, political showmanship.

The law’s proponents argue that the high bar it sets (90 MKs must vote to expel another member of Knesset) means that it is almost un-usable.

History teaches us otherwise.

The “Expulsion Law” was written specifically to target and remove from office MK Haneen Zoabi and her entire Balad Party (an Arab party). Right-wing Jewish Israeli politicians have made no secret of those intentions, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, who helped spearhead the legislation.

It is true that all of the Zionist opposition parties in the Knesset, from Labor to Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, voted against the new law Wednesday morning. And one could certainly take that as a sign that future attempts to expel Palestinian-Arab members of Knesset could never pass the 90-vote bar (Netanyahu’s coalition only controls 67 of 120 seats).

But those same Jewish opposition parties have in the past shown their willingness to turn against the likes of Zoabi and Balad whenever it is politically expedient. In the run-up to the most recent elections, “centrist” parties Labor and Yesh Atid both voted to disqualify Zoabi and Balad on the exact same grounds that the new law gives for expelling them from the Knesset. In the election before that, in 2009, both major “centrist” parties at the time, Labor and Tzipi Livni’s Kadima, also voted to disqualify Balad and another Arab party, UAL-Ta’al. (The Supreme Court overturned both disqualification attempts.)

The only Israeli parties that have consistently voted against excluding Arab parties from the Knesset are left-wing Zionist party Meretz and the Arab parties themselves, who together control a mere 18 seats (13 short of being able to block an expulsion vote).

History has shown us that when it comes time to win a few votes, almost all Jewish Israeli political parties are willing to turn on the Arabs. Doing so has become a populist ritual of sorts.

In the entirety of its 227-year history, the United States Senate has expelled only 15 senators from elected office. Fourteen of them were expelled for disloyalty during the Civil War. Arab elected representatives in Israel today, on the other hand, are not at risk of expulsion because they are taking sides in a civil war; they are in the political crosshairs for engaging in civil discourse — for daring to challenge a political system that makes them, Palestinians, second-class citizens at best.

In the words of MK Yousef Jabareen, when it comes to Palestinian members of Knesset, the new law “will make the right to be elected conditional on ‘good behavior’.”