Are Israeli-Arab Knesset members neglecting political game?

Arab Knesset members didn't bother showing up to the recent vote over the Recommendations law, which would protect Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from police investigations.

al-monitor A general view shows the plenum as Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the opening of the winter session of the Knesset in Jerusalem, Oct. 23, 2017. Photo by REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun.
Shlomi Eldar

Shlomi Eldar

@shlomieldar

Topics covered

knesset, joint list, benjamin netanyahu, israeli politics, zionist camp, arab israelis, israeli arabs, avi gabbay

Nov 29, 2017

With the support of 46 lawmakers, the Knesset gave initial approval Nov. 27 to the so-called recommendations law, also dubbed “the bill to silence police.” Only 83 of the chamber’s 120 members took part, with 37 voting against the proposed legislation that appears designed to prevent police from making public its recommendations, based on lengthy criminal investigations, on whether to prosecute Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s associates reject claims that the bill was meant to buy time for the prime minister. The bill’s sponsor, Knesset member and Netanyahu stalwart David Amsalem, argued that the legislation was motivated by a desire to defend suspects’ rights, but the energetic advocacy of the bill by Netanyahu's close associates clearly indicates they are acting on his behalf. Amsalem and coalition chair David Bitan booted out Knesset member Benny Begin, the son of the late Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin, from the Knesset’s Internal Affairs Committee for opposing the bill when it came up for debate. The Likud also threatened Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, the head of the coalition partner Kulanu, that if he didn't vote for the law the Likud would call early elections. Kahlon, as usual, gave in.

The law, which still awaits final Knesset approval, bans police from sharing its recommendations to the prosecution upon completion of probes. The law also stipulates that police will not present any recommendations in particularly sensitive investigations, such as those of elected officials in which a prosecutor is involved.

The legislation initiative and the aggressive way in which it is being fast-tracked for approval have generated a major public controversy. Opponents of what they call the “Netanyahu defense bill” have been outspoken. Zionist Camp Chairman Avi Gabbay called it a “crime” and “loss of shame,'' accusing its proponents of “robbing Israeli democracy in broad daylight.”

Former senior Likud officials have also expressed shock at the party’s conduct under Netanyahu and how the lawmakers are willing to do anything to keep their seats and defend the prime minister.

Former Justice Minister Dan Meridor, known as one of the Likud’s scions, dubbed the Likud’s behavior “scandalous." In an interview on Israel Army Radio, he said, “They are administering one blow after another to the giant enterprise we built here and to its legal system. … We are going downhill and people will lose faith.” Meridor added, “A few people have to stand up and say ‘We’re part of the coalition, but this has gone too far.'"

However, the controversial legislation is headed for final approval, and not only due to the efforts of its supporters in the coalition. Opposition lawmakers also had a lot to do with it, abusing their office by avoiding the vote. For example, seven of the 24 members of the Zionist Camp’s Knesset faction were absent, although three appear to have had a good excuse — they were abroad on parliamentary business (in Iceland and Moscow).

The absence of seven of the 13 lawmakers of the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties, the Knesset’s third-largest faction, was particularly strange. Chair Ayman Odeh had a legitimate excuse — he was in France attending a parliamentary conference. The others claimed personal reasons or other public commitments. Said al-Harumi, for example, was on a tour of disenfranchised Bedouin villages in southern Israel, according to his spokesperson, whereas Taleb Abu Arrar was called to an urgent meeting in the southern city of Beersheba and could not attend the vote, his spokesperson said.

Members of the Joint List, an alliance of four small Arab parties, promised their voters to work for them, to ensure their rights and to act for their integration into Israeli society as equals. Since the Joint List was formed before the March 2015 elections, Odeh has been striving to significantly increase the role of Arab society in Israel’s social, civic and constitutional discourse.

Recent polls reflect a promising shift, with most of Israel’s Arab citizens seeing themselves as part of the state and trusting its institutions, despite a sense of disenfranchisement. A survey published Nov. 22 by Israel Hayom, for example, indicates that 60% of Arab-Israelis are proud to be Israelis, 57% describe their attitude toward the police as positive and an even greater percentage, 60%, believe the Israeli court system operates with integrity.

It appears likely that most of the Arab-Israeli community that seeks to integrate as equals into Israeli society are concerned by the trampling of the country’s democracy and the corruption scandals dogging its officials daily. Thus, the Joint List did not fulfill its commitment to its voters. A tour of the “unrecognized” Bedouin villages and an urgent meeting in Beersheba are certainly important activities for the Arab public, but they could perhaps be put off.

When half the members of the Joint List avoid the vote on such a blatantly anti-democratic law, they are conveying to their constituents that a law designed to cover for a prime minister and defend him from criminal probes does not trouble them. They chose to leave such matters to their Jewish counterparts.

Their presence in the Knesset plenary for the vote could have taken on additional political significance as the chamber’s third-largest party. Gabbay, the head of the leading opposition party, recently insisted that if he were picked to put together Israel’s next government, he would not ask the Joint List to join. This week’s vote could have been a show of force by the Joint List and a message to Gabbay that the day will come when he will beg for their support.

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