|WHEN I was first elected to the Knesset, I was appalled at |
what I found. I discovered that, with rare exceptions, the
intellectual level of the debates was close to zero. They
consisted mainly of strings of clich?s of the most
commonplace variety. During most of the debates, the plenum
was almost empty. Most participants spoke vulgar Hebrew.
When voting, many members had no idea what they were voting
for or against, they just followed the party whip.
That was 1967, when the Knesset included members like Levy
Eshkol and Pinchas Sapir, David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan,
Menachem Begin and Yohanan Bader, Meir Yaari and Yaakov
Chazan, for whom today streets, highroads and neighborhoods
In comparison to the present Knesset, that Knesset now
looks like Plato`s Academy.
WHAT FRIGHTENED me more than anything else was the
readiness of members to enact irresponsible laws for the
sake of fleeting popularity, especially at times of mass
hysteria. One of my first Knesset initiatives was to submit
a bill which would have created a second chamber, a kind of
Senate, composed of outstanding personalities, with the
power to hold up the enactment of new laws and compel the
Knesset to reconsider them after an interval. This, I
hoped, would prevent laws being hastily adopted in an
atmosphere of excitement.
The bill was not considered seriously, neither by the
Knesset nor by the general public. The Knesset almost
unanimously voted it down. (After some years, several of
the members told me that they regretted their vote.) The
newspapers nicknamed the proposed 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
So there is no brake. The production of irresponsible laws,
most of them racist and anti-democratic, is booming. The
more the government itself is turning into an assembly of
political hacks, the more the likelihood of its preventing
such legislation is diminishing. The present government,
the largest, basest and most despised in Israel`s history,
is cooperating with the Knesset members who submit such
bills, and even initiating them itself.
The only remaining obstacle to this recklessness is the
Supreme Court. In the absence of a written constitution, it
has taken upon itself the power to annul scandalous laws
that violate democracy and human rights. But the Supreme
Court itself is beleaguered by rightists who want to
destroy it, and is moving with great caution. It intervenes
only in the most extreme cases.
Thus a paradoxical situation has arisen: parliament, the
highest expression of democracy, is itself now posing a
dire threat to Israeli democracy.
THE MAN who personifies this phenomenon more than anyone
else is MK Michael Ben-Ari of the `National Union` faction,
the heir of Meir Kahane, whose organization `Kach` (`Thus`)
was outlawed many years ago because of its openly fascist
Kahane himself was elected to the Knesset only once. The
reaction of the other members was unequivocal: whenever he
rose to speak, almost all the other members left the hall.
The rabbi had to make his speeches before a handful of
A few weeks ago I visited the present Knesset for the first
time since its election. I went there to listen to a debate
about a subject that concerns me too: the decision of the
Palestinian Authority to boycott the products of the
settlements, a dozen years after Gush Shalom started this
boycott. I spent some hours in the building, and from hour
to hour my revulsion deepened.
The main cause was a circumstance I had not been aware of:
MK Ben-Ari, the disciple and admirer of Kahane, holds sway
there. Not only is he not an isolated outsider on the
fringe of parliamentary life, as his mentor had been, but
on the contrary, he is at the center. I saw the members of
almost all other factions crowding around him in the
members` cafeteria and listening to his perorations with
rapt attention in the plenum. No doubt can remain that
Kahanism - the Israeli version of fascism - has moved from
the margin to center stage.
Recently, the country witnessed a scene that looked like
something from the parliament of South Korea or Japan.
On the Knesset speaker`s rostrum stood MK Haneen Zoabi of
the Arab nationalist Balad faction and tried to explain why
she had joined the Gaza aid flotilla that had been attacked
by the Israeli navy. MK Anastasia Michaeli, a member of the
Lieberman party, jumped from her seat and rushed to the
rostrum, letting out blood-curdling shrieks, waving her
arms, in order to remove Haneen Zoabi by force. Other
members rose from their seats to help Michaeli. Near the
speaker, a threatening crowd of Knesset members gathered.
Only with great difficulty did the ushers succeed in saving
Zoabi from bodily harm. One of the male members shouted at
her, in a typical mixture of racism and sexism: `Go to Gaza
and see what they will do to a 41 year old unmarried
One could not imagine a greater contrast than that between
the two MKs. While Haneen Zoabi belongs to a family whose
roots in the Nazareth area go back centuries, perhaps to
the time of Jesus, Anastasia Michaeli was born in (then)
Leningrad. She was elected `Miss St. Petersburg` and then
became a fashion model, married an Israeli, converted to
Judaism, immigrated to Israel at age 24 but sticks to her
very Russian first name. She has given birth to eight
children. She may be a candidate for the Israeli Sarah
Palin, who, after all, was also once a beauty queen..
As far as I could make out, not a single Jewish member
raised a finger to defend Zoabi during the tumult. Nothing
but some half-hearted protest from the Speaker, Reuven
Rivlin, and a Meretz member, Chaim Oron.
In all the 61 years of its existence, the Knesset had not
seen such a sight. Within a minute the sovereign assembly
turned into a parliamentary lynch mob.
One does not have to support the ideology of Balad to
respect the impressive personality of Haneen Zoabi. She
speaks fluently and persuasively, has degrees from two
Israeli universities, fights for the rights of women within
the Israeli-Arab community and is the first female member
of an Arab party in the Knesset. Israeli democracy could be
proud of her. She belongs to a large Arab extended family.
The brother of her grandfather was the mayor of Nazareth,
one uncle was a deputy minister and another a Supreme Court
judge. (Indeed, on my first day in the Knesset I proposed
that another member of the Zoabi family be elected as
This week, the Knesset decided by a large majority to adopt
a proposal by Michael Ben-Ari, supported by Likud and
Kadima members, to strip Haneen Zoabi of her parliamentary
privileges. Even before, Interior Minister Eli Yishai had
asked the Legal Advisor to the Government for approval of
his plan to strip Zoabi of her Israeli citizenship on the
grounds of treason. One of the Knesset members shouted at
her: `You have no place in the Israeli Knesset! You have no
right to hold an Israeli identity card!`
On the very same day, the Knesset took action against the
founder of Zoabi`s party, Azmi Bishara. In a preliminary
hearing, it approved a bill - this one, too, supported by
both Likud and Kadima members - aimed at denying Bishara
his pension, which is due after his resignation from the
Knesset. (He is staying abroad, after being threatened with
an indictment for espionage.)
The proud parents of these initiatives, which enjoy massive
support from Likud, Kadima, Lieberman`s party and all the
religious factions, do not hide their intention to expel
all the Arabs from parliament and establish at long last a
pure Jewish Knesset. The latest decisions of the Knesset
are but parts of a prolonged campaign, which gives birth
almost every week to new initiatives from publicity-hungry
members, who know that the more racist and anti-democratic
their bills are, the more popular they will be with their
Such was this weeks Knesset decision to condition the
acquisition of citizenship on the candidate`s swearing
allegiance to Israel as a `Jewish and democratic state`,
thus demanding that Arabs (especially foreign Arab spouses
of Arab citizens) subscribe to the Zionist ideology. The
equivalent would be the demand that new American citizens
swear allegiance to the USA as a `white Anglo-Saxon
There seems to be no limit to this parliamentary
irresponsibility. All red lines have been crossed long ago.
This does not concern only the parliamentary representation
of more than 20% of Israel`s citizens, but there is a
growing tendency towards depriving all Arab citizens of
their citizenship altogether.
THIS TENDENCY is connected with the ongoing attack on the
status of the Arabs in East Jerusalem.
This week I was present at the hearing in Jerusalem`s
magistrates court on the detention of Muhammed Abu Ter, one
of the four Hamas members of the Palestinian parliament
from Jerusalem. The hearing was held in a tiny room, which
can seat only about a dozen spectators. I succeeded only
with great difficulty in getting in.
After they were elected in democratic elections, in
conformity with Israel`s explicit obligation under the Oslo
agreement to allow the Arabs in East Jerusalem to take
part, the government announced that their `permanent
resident` status had been revoked.
What does that mean? When Israel `annexed` East Jerusalem
in 1967, the government did not dream of conferring
citizenship on the inhabitants, which would have
significantly increased the percentage of Arab voters in
Israel. Neither did they invent a new status for them.
Lacking other alternatives, the inhabitants became
`permanent residents`, a status devised for foreigners who
wish to stay in Israel. The Minister of the Interior has
the right to revoke this status and deport such people to
their countries of origin.
Clearly, this definition of `permanent residents` should
not apply to the inhabitants of East Jerusalem. They and
their forefathers were born there, they have no other
citizenship and no other place of residence. The revoking
of their status turns them into politically homeless people
without protection of any kind.
The state lawyers argued in court that with the
cancellation of his `permanent resident` status, Abu Ter
has become an `illegal person` whose refusal to leave the
city warrants unlimited detention.
(A few hours earlier, the Supreme Court dealt with our
petition concerning the investigation of the Gaza flotilla
incident. We won a partial, but significant, victory: for
the first time in its history, the Supreme Court agreed to
interfere in a matter concerning a commission of inquiry.
The court decided that if the commission requires the
testimony of military officers and the government tries to
prevent this, the court will intervene.)
IF SOME people are trying to delude themselves into
believing that the parliamentary mob will harm `only
Arabs`, they are vastly mistaken. The only question is: who
is next in line?
This week, the Knesset gave the first reading to a bill to
impose heavy penalties on any Israeli who advocates a
boycott on Israel, in general, and on economic enterprises,
universities and other Israeli institutions, including
settlements, in particular. Any such institution will be
entitled to an indemnity of 5000 dollars from every
supporter of the boycott.
A call for boycott is a democratic means of expression. I
object very much to a general boycott on Israel, but
(following Voltaire) am ready to fight for everybody`s
right to call for such a boycott. The real aim of the bill
is, of course, to protect the settlements: it is designed
to deter those who call for a boycott of the products of
the settlements which exist on occupied land outside the
borders of the state. This includes me and my friends.
Since the foundation of Israel, it has never stopped
boasting of being the `Only Democracy in the Middle East`.
This is the jewel in the crown of Israeli propaganda. The
Knesset is the symbol of this democracy.
It seems that the parliamentary mob, which has taken over
the Knesset, is determined to destroy this image once and
for all, so that Israel will find its proper place
somewhere between Libya, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.