The recent mini drama in the Knesset that featured MK Ghaleb Majadele (Labor), MK Anastassia Michaeli (Yisrael Beiteinu) and MK Ahmad Tibi (Raam-Taal) has shifted the focus away from the real story: Knesset conduct prohibits the Palestinian minority from raising issues over their collective rights through democratic and legislative channels.
By Fady Khoury
The “drama” in a nutshell: MK Michaeli poured a cup of water on MK Majadele in a heated Education Committee debate on the potential dismissal of a Palestinian school principal who took students to a human rights march that had been held in Tel Aviv. The Knesset’s Ethics Committee then suspended MK Michaeli from the Knesset for a month. A day later, MK Tibi gave a speech in the form of a limerick in the Knesset plenum in which he referred to MK Michaeli as “Anastasia, who has a problem with her plumbing” and “Anastasia, who has run amok, Poured water on her colleague And thus I will call the baby by its name: Kos Amok”, which is a play on a swear word in Arabic but literally means a “cup of madness.” His full speech is here.
The Ethics Committee deemed it “hurtful, humiliating speech with chauvinist sexual connotations,” and suspended him from the Knesset for one week. While these incidents reflect the deteriorating political discourse in Israel, another event goes further in indicating a much deeper problem in Israel’s democratic discourse – or lack thereof.
That same week, the Knesset Presidium – comprised of the Knesset Speaker and his deputies – disqualified two bills introduced by MK Tibi, who is known for bill proposals designed to stir debate on important and controversial issues. One of the bills proposed acknowledging Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine and the Islamic people. The second bill suggested disqualifying school textbooks that use the term “Arab gangs” in referring to Arabs who fought against the Jews prior to the establishment of Israel in 1948, and changing the term to “fighters.”
In July of last year, the Knesset Presidium blocked another bill presented by MK Tibi in reaction to the Nakba Law, which penalizes the commemoration of the Palestinian disaster of 1948. In a parallel move, MK Tibi proposed to revoke state funding for institutions that deny the Nakba. A petition challenging the disqualification of the bill was submitted to the High Court, which will deliberate it sometime this year.
According to section 75(e) of the Knesset Rules of Procedure (PDF file):
Private members’ bill shall be brought for the approval of the Knesset Presidium. The Knesset Presidium shall not approve a bill that in its opinion denies the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish People, or is racist in its essence
Both bills introduced by MK Tibi, as well as last year’s bill, were blocked because the Knesset Presidium opined that they amount to denying the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people. Eyal Yinon, the Knesset legal adviser, noted that while one of these bills – Jerusalem as the Capital of Palestine and the Islamic people – amounts to a denial of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people, the other two bills do not.
The implications of this provision on the democratic process are tremendous. It grants the Speaker and his deputies the power to veto bills based on their substance rather than allowing elected representatives to discuss and judge for themselves through a vote. Furthermore, it prevents the Arab minority from presenting bills concerning important issues through regular democratic channels, or even raising those issues for proper public debate.
Disqualifying bills in advance and thus excluding debate should only be tolerated in cases where the mere discussion of an issue is harmful or even immoral. It can be argued that prohibiting the introduction of bills that are fundamentally racist is justified based on an intolerance for and desire to eradicate racism; the debate surrounding a racist law might be harmful in and of itself.
The same cannot be said in relation to bills asking the state to acknowledge the collective rights of its Palestinian citizens – whether relating to the Nakba specifically or the Palestinian narrative in general. It certainly cannot convincingly justify the prohibition of political debate on these issues. The majority may reject the bills or pass them. But just placing them on the Knesset agenda is not harmful or immoral. Preventing the minority from a discussion with the majority of the issues at the core of its identity is, however, just that.
Fady Khoury is a legal intern at Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not Adalah.