In the Knesset

Uri Avnery

When I was first elected to the Knesset, the debates consisted mainly of recitations of the most commonplace clichés. Most of the time, the chamber was almost empty. Many MKs had no idea what they were voting for or against: they just followed the party whip. What frightened me more than anything else was the readiness of members to pass reckless laws for the sake of fleeting popularity, especially at times of mass hysteria. In comparison to the present Knesset, that Knesset looks like Plato’s academy.

One of my first initiatives then was to submit a bill which would have created a second chamber, a kind of senate, with the power to delay the passage of new laws. The Knesset almost unanimously voted down my proposal. The newspapers nicknamed the chamber ‘the House of Lords’ and ridiculed it. Haaretz devoted a whole page of cartoons to the proposal, depicting me in the garb of a British peer.

Today, the production of irresponsible laws, most of them racist and anti-democratic, is booming. The only remaining obstacle to their progress is the Supreme Court. In the absence of a written constitution, it has the power to annul laws that violate democracy and human rights. But the Supreme Court, under assault from rightists, intervenes only in the most extreme cases. A paradoxical situation has arisen: parliament, the highest expression of democracy, now poses a grave threat to democracy. The man who personifies this phenomenon more than anyone else is MK Michael Ben-Ari of the National Union faction, a protégé of Meir Kahane, whose Kach party (‘Thus’) was outlawed many years ago.

Kahane himself was elected to the Knesset only once. Whenever he rose to speak, most of the other MKs left the hall. By contrast, Ben-Ari, as I discovered when I visited the Knesset a few weeks ago, holds sway there. Members of almost every faction crowd around him in the cafeteria, listening to his perorations with rapt attention. No doubt can remain that Kahanism has moved from the margin to centre stage. Consider the reaction to Hanin Zoabi of the Arab nationalist Balad party (‘Homeland’) when she tried to explain why she had joined the Gaza aid flotilla that had been attacked by the Israeli navy. Anastassia Michaeli, a member of Avigdor Lieberman’s party, jumped from her seat and rushed to the rostrum, letting out blood-curdling shrieks, waving her arms, in order to remove Zoabi by force. Other members rose from their seats to help Michaeli. Only with great difficulty did the ushers succeed in protecting Zoabi from physical harm. ‘Go to Gaza and see what they do to a 41-year-old unmarried woman!’ one male MK shouted at her.

Zoabi belongs to a large, extended family whose roots in Nazareth go back centuries. Michaeli was born in what was then Leningrad. She was elected Miss St Petersburg and then became a fashion model. She married an Israeli, converted to Judaism and immigrated to Israel. As far as I could tell, not a single Jewish MK raised a finger to defend Zoabi.

Zoabi has degrees from two Israeli universities, fights for the rights of women among Palestinian citizens of Israel and is the first female member of an Arab party in the Knesset. Israeli democracy should be proud of her. Instead, the Knesset has decided by a large majority to adopt a proposal by Ben-Ari to strip Zoabi of her parliamentary privileges. One of the MKs shouted at her: ‘You have no place in the Israeli Knesset! You have no right to hold an Israeli identity card!’

The proud parents of this initiative, which enjoys massive support from Likud, Kadima, Lieberman’s party and all the religious factions, make no secret of their desire to expel all Arabs from parliament and establish, at last, a pure Jewish Knesset. A new bill requires those seeking Israeli citizenship – including, for example, foreign Arab spouses of Arab citizens – to swear allegiance to Israel as a ‘Jewish and democratic state’. This would be like asking new American citizens to swear allegiance to the US as a ‘white Anglo-Saxon Protestant state’.

There is also a growing movement to deprive Arab citizens of their citizenship altogether. Take the current attack on the status of the Arabs in East Jerusalem. I recently attended a hearing in Jerusalem’s magistrates court on the detention of Muhammad Abu Tir, a Hamas member of the Palestinian parliament, one of four from Jerusalem. The hearing was held in a tiny room with space for only a dozen members of the public.

Abu Tir and his associates were democratically elected in conformity with Israel’s explicit obligation under the Oslo agreement to allow the Arabs in East Jerusalem to take part in the parliament in Ramallah. The government has now announced that their ‘permanent resident’ status had been revoked. What does that mean? When Israel ‘annexed’ East Jerusalem in 1967, it did not dream of conferring citizenship on the inhabitants, since that would have significantly increased the percentage of Arab voters in Israel. Instead, the inhabitants were declared ‘permanent residents’, a status devised for foreigners who wish to stay in Israel. It was designed to be easily revoked, allowing the government to deport such people to their countries of origin. How can the term ‘permanent residents’ possibly apply to the inhabitants of East Jerusalem? They and their ancestors were born there, they have no other citizenship and no other place of residence. The revoking of their status renders them politically homeless. The lawyers for the state argued in court that with the cancellation of his ‘permanent resident’ status, Abu Tir had become an ‘illegal person’ whose refusal to leave the city warranted unlimited detention.

The Knesset is now considering a bill to impose heavy penalties on any Israeli who advocates a boycott of Israel in general, or of Israeli businesses and institutions. Any such institution will be entitled to an indemnity of $5000 from every supporter of a boycott. The real aim of the bill is to deter those calling for a boycott of goods produced by the settlements.

Since the creation of Israel, it has never stopped boasting of being the ‘only democracy in the Middle East’. It seems that the parliamentary mob that now runs the Knesset is determined that Israel take up its proper place somewhere between Libya, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.