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Does Israel's new 'suspension bill' suppress democracy?

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hails the "suspension bill" authorizing the Knesset to suspend Knesset members in certain cases, critics claim that the proposal is anti-democratic.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) chats with members of his party during a meeting of his Likud party meeting in the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem February 8, 2016. A bill that opponents say targets Israeli human rights groups critical of Israel's policies towards the Palestinians was set to win initial approval in parliament on Monday with the support of the country's right-wing. It is widely expected to receive preliminary approval in the Knesset late on Monday.   REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun - RTX

Speaking at a closed conference organized by the Israel Democracy Institute on Feb. 15, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein sounded resolute and confident, saying he was opposed to the suspension bill being promoted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “As long as I am speaker of the house, this bill will not be sponsored,” Edelstein said. This legislation comes in response to the outcry following the visit Balad Party lawmakers (of the Arab party Joint List) paid to the families of terrorists from East Jerusalem earlier in February. The proposed bill aims at suspending serving legislators for “conduct unbecoming of their status as Knesset members.”

Edelstein’s position justly grabbed the media’s attention. He was the first and only Likud Party Knesset member to oppose the bill initiated and promoted by the premier. President Reuven Rivlin — himself a Likud diehard — lambasted the dangerous bill, which he said “reflects a problematic understanding of what democracy is all about.” However, he is no longer a Knesset member and therefore not bound by the prime minister or Likud voters.

To Rivlin's credit it should be noted that even when he served as Knesset speaker on behalf of the Likud, he showed loyalty to liberalism principles. In 2011, for instance, he voted against a bill proposed by Netanyahu, thus defying the imposed unanimous vote by the coalition. The “anti-libel bill” (dubbed in Israeli media as the “silencing bill”) proposed to increase sixfold the limit on compensation for libelous reports, from 50,000 shekels to 300,000 shekels (from $12,000 to $77,000). Rivlin warned that such a law would harm freedom of speech and might damage irreversibly the media market, thus causing newspapers to shut down.

It is for these reasons that the position espoused by Edelstein — until recently a resident of one of the settlements in the West Bank — sounded both refreshing and brave. Barely a day passed before the speaker of the house changed his mind and declared that he supports suspending lawmakers who openly and consistently incite racism or openly support terrorism and terrorists. Edelstein claimed that he has been consistent in his position, expressing reservations pertaining only to certain points in the proposed bill. Either way, once his objection was lifted, the road was paved to further the law in the Constitution Committee. Over the past couple of days, both the committee’s chairman, Knesset member Nissan Slomiansky, and the house speaker got phone calls from Netanyahu, who is currently in Berlin. The prime minister guaranteed them that the bill’s new wording will secure the necessary majority in order for the Knesset plenary to carry it.

The proposed draft bill constitutes an amendment to the Knesset Basic Law. Passing an amendment to a basic law requires a majority of 61 lawmakers out of 120, which in and of itself is a tall order for Netanyahu’s narrow government, which is composed of 61 members. Another hurdle in Netanyahu’s path is the unexpected objection from the HaBayit HaYehudi Party. Ayelet Shaked, the justice minister, has voiced her reservations about the bill, while her fellow party member Bezalel Smotrich said, “Today [the bill] is against Arabs, tomorrow it could be used against settlers or the ultra-Orthodox.”

According to the amended draft bill formulated by Slomiansky, a Knesset member could be suspended for a set period of time or until the end of the Knesset’s term upon a 90-member majority. It will initially require at least 61 lawmakers to submit to the house speaker a written demand for suspension. That demand will then be passed on to the Knesset Committee where a 75% majority is required in order for the process to be pursued any further.

According to the proposed bill, a lawmaker could be suspended under three scenarios: a visit to an enemy state, support — even if just verbal — of terrorism, and renouncement of Israel’s identity as a Jewish democratic state. According to the current law, the Central Elections Committee can prevent an individual from running for an election. This committee is a judicial body, and the biggest change that is now being proposed is to hand the authority of suspending over to the Knesset, which could discontinue the term of an individual who has been democratically elected.

It is the prime minister who has been pushing for this unprecedented legislation after having also lodged a personal grievance with the Knesset Ethics Committee against Balad’s three members: Hanin Zoabi, Basal Ghattas and Jamal Zahalka. In a Feb. 4 statement, Netanyahu said, “Those [Knesset members] who comfort terrorists’ families don’t deserve to be MKs.”

Even during his visit to Germany, the prime minister kept pushing for the bill, taking advantage of the press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to say, “Democracy must protect itself. We won’t allow for democracy to be taken advantage of in an effort to try and bring about its collapse. When Knesset members support movements that clearly call for the destruction of Israel, when they support terrorism, when they stand silently in memory of people who murder children, the Knesset can and must act against them.”

Ever since the last elections in March 2015, Netanyahu has put the struggle against Arab Knesset members at the top of his agenda. The more the lone-attacker intifada intensifies and as the struggle against Iran’s nuclear program faded, the more this agenda keeps taking on volume. With his new agenda, Netanyahu is altering the character of the Likud movement from a national-liberal party to a nationalistic one, leaving behind the ideologies espoused by its leaders, Revisionist founder Ze’ev Jabotinsky and late Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Netanyahu is motivated by electoral considerations and public opinion against the backdrop of the ongoing wave of terror and the decline in personal security. Time and time again, Netanyahu turns all Arab Israelis into an enemy. What is equally serious is the silence of Likud ministers and Knesset members who lend a hand by taking an active role in destroying the Likud as a movement with democratic values. Even Minister Benny Begin (son of Menachem Begin) — considered to be the last remnant of the old, liberal Likud — has been keeping mum.

Those trying to stop this murky wave are former Likud Ministers Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan and obviously President Rivlin. No longer subject to Netanyahu’s authority, they are not concerned that Likud voters will take revenge on them for not being jingoistic enough. They already paid the price for their liberal values ahead of the 2013 elections when they were left out of the party’s slate after trying to stop radical, anti-democratic, right-wing legislation.

In a conversation with Al-Monitor, Meridor noted that the proposed bill is an unprecedented move because it makes Knesset members into a quasi-judicial body that explores the facts, holds hearings and hands out judgments. According to him, “This undermines one of democracy’s core rights. To impeach someone who has been elected by the public — I find this horrible. What does it mean ‘support of terrorism’? Balad’s Knesset members did something very ugly, but it wasn’t a criminal offense. For this we have the [Knesset] Ethics Committee.”

Meridor bemoans the fact that there is likely no one today in the Likud’s ranks to stop such moves. “In the past, we stopped [them]. Today’s there’s nobody to stop [them]. I don’t know what will happen in the end, but for the time being, this is detrimental. It aims at increasing ethnic tension between Jews and Arabs and intensifying incitement against Arabs. What’s at stake here? If a criminal offense is committed, there is a legal process. I have to admit that some of the actions of the Arab Knesset members are infuriating. But that’s democracy. The boundaries are the boundaries of the criminal law. Why would Knesset members start ousting each other?”

Former Minister Eitan also raises a hue and cry against this legislation. “There has been nothing like that in the history of the State of Israel. This is such a clear trend of encroaching on rights,” he told Al-Monitor. “I’m afraid we’re slowly approaching the point of no return. This is conducive to an atmosphere whereby it is intolerably easy to have Knesset members impeached without a trial by other fellow lawmakers.”

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