The chairman of the Knesset’s Interior Committee, Yoav Kisch of Likud, decided to cancel an emergency discussion by his committee on violence and organized crime in the Arab sector sponsored by Ayman Odeh, chairman of the predominantly Arab Joint List. According to Kisch, Odeh had participated in a conference he claimed was organized by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which Israel considers a terrorist organization. “The committee that I chair will not cooperate with anyone who supports terrorism,” Kisch explained.
The conference, which took place in Jerusalem’s Ambassador Hotel, was supposed to discuss the status of Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Palestine. The Russia-Palestine Friendship Society organized it. Haider Aghanin, Russian ambassador to the Palestinian Authority, and Alexander Sorokin, director of the Russian Cultural Center in Bethlehem, were scheduled to participate, but then Yoram Halevy, Jerusalem district police commander, signed an order banning the conference, and the participants were forcibly dispersed. The Israel Police claimed that it had received information that the conference had been organized by groups considered to be terrorist organizations.
In an interview with Al-Monitor, Odeh rejected this claim by the police. He added that he even asked to present the Knesset speaker with his invitation from the Russian Embassy to attend the event. The embassy had issued a statement confirming that the conference was a friendly gathering and that no terrorist organizations were involved in it. Nevertheless, Kisch called Odeh a “supporter of terrorism” and canceled the discussion on an issue that is a major agenda item for Israel’s Arab population.
On June 9, the journalist Guy Peleg reported on some chilling figures on the crime rate among Israeli Arabs. Although Israeli Arabs constitute about 20% of Israel’s total population, police statistics show that some 60% of all murders involve Israeli Arabs, while 95% of shooting incidents occur in Arab localities or involve Arab crime syndicates. Arab involvement in incidents involving the possession of weapons stands at 76%.
The proliferation of weapons among Arabs is a well-known phenomenon in Israel, but until now, successive governments have shameful records in halting the trend. Arab Knesset members claim that the police invest minimal resources in dealing with the problem, while efforts to stem violence among the Arab population should be declared a national goal. While the police are aware of the extent of gun possession in many Arab localities, they refuse to enter the towns to confiscate guns. In fact, it seems as if they would rather turn away, as long as Arabs are killing Arabs. That is probably why most murders in the sector are never solved.
Odeh believes that even if Kisch had a problem with his participation in the controversial conference, he should have discussed it with him in the forum of his choice, rather than taking his frustrations out on Arab society as a whole. The discussion in the Knesset’s Interior Committee was intended to find solutions to the problem of violence affecting all of Arab society and threatening its very social fabric. The decision to cancel it, Odeh said, was little more than a personal act of vengeance against him.
“If he has a problem with me,” said Odeh, “let him take it up before the Knesset. Let him beat me up and call me any name he wants. But canceling an important discussion that I initiated means that he is ignoring the entire sector that I represent. They are being treated like second-class citizens who can be harmed just to get back at me, the Knesset member representing them.”
The Joint List sees a direct connection between Kisch’s decision and his efforts to break up the Joint List. It was recently learned that Kisch is pushing an amendment to the Party Funding Law, which would limit any list composed of more than two factions to only receiving public funding based on the size of its two largest factions. This would probably lead to the collapse of the Joint List, which consists of four separate parties.
The Joint List was formed just before the 2015 election to allow the Arab parties to survive a law sponsored by Knesset member Avigdor Liberman of Yisrael Beitenu raising the electoral threshold. While it was originally intended to make it more difficult for Arab parties to get elected to the Knesset, the law boomeranged on its supporters. Instead of disappearing from politics, the Arab parties united in a single list and became the third-largest party in the legislature and a thorn in the side of the right-wing parties.
Over time, as the right realized that raising the electoral threshold would not bring about the desired results, it was reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was considering amending the law again to lower the threshold. It quickly became clear, however, that the proposed amendment faced sharp opposition from the religious parties. Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas, was worried that a lower threshold would help his archenemy Eli Yishai, who heads a rival movement, get elected to the Knesset by taking votes from Shas, which was already in danger of disappearing from the political map.
Odeh claims that Minister of Education Naftali Bennett admitted to him that lowering the voter threshold would hurt HaBayit HaYehudi, which Bennett heads, since it would result in extortion within his own party, which consists of two distinct factions: Tekuma and the National Religious Party.
According to Odeh, this is why the Likud came up with what he calls an “underhanded initiative” that would only harm the Joint List and force it to break apart. As of now, it is the only party in the Knesset that consists of more than two factions. Odeh claims that Liberman does not want to admit that his original initiative had failed. Liberman is therefore remaining silent, if only to preserve his dignity. This left Kisch to rise to the challenge.
Efforts to limit the political activities of the Knesset's Arab members broke new records in the previous Knesset. Cries of “terrorists” or “supporters of terrorism” have regularly been hurled at them by other Knesset members and even ministers on the right. One particularly egregious attack came from Liberman, who described them as “more dangerous than Hamas and Islamic Jihad.” It got so bad that Joint List members warned that this kind of unrestrained incitement against them could end in assassination.
Meanwhile, the incitement continues, and the new initiative is gaining momentum. The ploys by the right might weaken the Knesset's Arab members or even cause them to disappear entirely, but they will also weaken Israeli democracy.