ANALYSIS Israel’s right-wing laws: A threat to democracy or much ado about symbolism?

Hanin Zoabi, an Israeli Arab lawmaker at the center of a controversial bill to oust Knesset members, seen at the Israeli parliament, July 11, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)


TEL AVIV (JTA) — Israel’s government, sometimes called its most right-wing ever, is on a roll.

The Knesset was expected to pass a law Tuesday evening allowing lawmakers to oust their colleagues from office for supporting terrorism or inciting racism — the third new government-backed law targeting anti-Zionist expression and leftist activism in eight days.

The other laws upped the penalty for desecrating the Israeli flag and required nongovernmental organizations to explicitly declare when they get more than half their funding from foreign governments.

None of the laws, coming ahead of the Knesset’s summer recess, are expected to have much real-world impact. But the left and the right are seizing on their symbolism.

For the right, they set red lines that protect Israel’s sovereignty from foreign meddling and its democracy from those who would undermine it.

Left-wing Knesset members and liberal observers worry they are already harming Israel’s democratic institutions and whipping up public sentiment against Arabs and leftists.

The latest bill, a response to Israeli Arab lawmakers who visited the families of Jerusalem terrorists who were killed carrying out attacks, is an amendment to Israel’s Basic Law. It would allow the Knesset to expel any member who supports armed struggle against Israel or incites racial hatred if a three-fourths majority of its 120 members agreed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other supporters of the law have argued democracy must be protected from itself.

“I praise this since we need to ensure basic standards for behavior so our democracy doesn’t turn, in the words of a great American jurist, into a suicide pact. It needs to look after itself and protect itself,” Netanyahu told the Knesset in response to his coalition unanimously backing the bill in February. The “suicide pact” phrase was used by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson in a 1949 case about inflammatory speech.

Ahead of the vote on the expulsion law, as some are now calling it, Isaac Herzog, the leader of the political opposition, countered that it would be the end of Israel’s democracy.

“The impeachment bill that the coalition is advancing is a bullet between the eyes of Israeli democracy,” Herzog, who heads the center-left Zionist Union, said last week. The coalition, he said, wants to “dismantle what was built here and build a new state that is racist, violent, conflicted and torn apart — a wild west in which every Smotrich is a sheriff with inexhaustible powers.”

Betzalel Smotrich, a member of the religious-nationalist Jewish Home party, has been admonished by members of his own party for his bellicose statements about Arabs.

Aymen Odeh, the head of the Arab Joint List, said in a statement about the law Tuesday that Netanyahu was trying to disenfranchise Israeli Arabs.

“The Prime Minister has a clear objective that this bill is just one part of fulfilling,” the statement said. “Netanyahu does not want Arabs to vote and he does not want us to be a legitimate political force. Netanyahu wants politics for Jews only. That is why he is blatantly inciting against the Arab public and against its elected representative.”

A raft of right-wing legislation has been proposed since the hawkish 20th Knesset was sworn in. Most of these bills, though, have not become law, and those that have were softened during the legislative process.

The expulsion bill and the two other laws passed last week are no exception. Even the harshest critics of the NGO law, which was passed last Monday, acknowledge that in the end, it does not require the left-wing groups it singles out to reveal any new information. And the flag desecration law, also passed Monday, simply increases existing maximum sentences.

On its face, the expulsion law looks more serious than the others. The catch is that the bar for impeachment is high. Ten of the 70 Knesset members who initiate the process must be from the opposition, three-quarters of the House Committee must sign off and 90 lawmakers must ultimately vote to make it law. Also, the process cannot be initiated during election season.

Even assuming lawmakers manage to impeach one of their own, the ousted parliamentarian can appeal to the Supreme Court, which is likely to be sympathetic. The Basic Law that the expulsion law amends was previously used by the Knesset Elections Committee to disqualify candidates and parties from running. The Supreme Court only upheld one ban by the committee — of the ultranationalist Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Kach party was deemed anti-democratic.

At least one member of the governing coalition has complained that such changes render the expulsion law largely symbolic, anonymously telling Haaretz in February that Netanyahu “doesn’t care what the law says, he just wants a law like this on the books. If you check carefully, you find that you will never be able to suspend any MK on the basis of the new version.”

So what’s the big deal?

Critics of the law have said it singles out Arabs and creates a mechanism for Knesset members to harass and delegitimize them.

The main target of the expulsion law seems to be firebrand Arab Knesset member Hanin Zoabi, who has made a political career of outraging Israelis. The legislation was initiated after she and two other members of her Balad party, which is part of the Joint List, visited the families of Palestinians killed while attacking Israelis and observed a moment of silence in their memory.

Following public outcry, Netanyahu called for action against the Arab Knesset members. He subsequently spoke repeatedly in favor of the expulsion law. After Zoabi called Israeli soldiers “murderers” in a June Knesset address-turned-brouhaha, Netanyahu even considered swapping the law for one focused solely on expelling Zoabi from the Knesset.

The Knesset Ethics Committee suspended Zoabi from addressing the parliament for four months for her February house call and may suspend her again for her June speech.

Amir Fuchs, an analyst at the Israel Democracy Institute, a leading think tank here, noted that she or any other lawmaker could already be prosecuted for supporting armed struggle or incitement to racial hatred. But with the expulsion law, the Knesset has effectively circumvented the justice system, making itself “accuser, investigator, judge and executioner,” he said. Arab lawmakers, he said, will be public enemy No. 1.

According to Fuchs, the expulsion law is part of a “populist wave of nationalist legislation” unprecedented in Israeli history, including under right-wing prime ministers such as Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir.

“I think in the last years, there’s some kind of a circle that the politicians becomes more and more populistic,” he said. “They see that attacking Arabs or the extreme left is popular, so they try to show achievements in this field, and the public is hearing this from its leaders and becomes more and more extreme.”

Yoaz Hendel, the chairman of the Institute for Zionist Strategies, a right-leaning think tank, told JTA he agrees the expulsion law is all about Zoabi. In a way, he said, Zoabi is responsible for much of the legislation decried by the left.

“Hanin Zoabi has become the political reaction center in Israel. She is the character behind all those bills,” Hendel said, “and she becomes an excuse for everything — for not dealing with poverty or for your political party to come to power.”

Hendel calls the expulsion law a step in the right direction, however. While the Knesset would ideally legislate well-considered “red lines on what is acceptable in democracy and what is not,” he said, in no way do they threaten Israeli democracy.

The real threat in his opinion are the Arab Knesset members “who are strategically damaging the coexistence with Arabs.”

“When Hanin Zoabi is cooperating with terror organizations, what do you think it’s doing for Israeli democracy? It’s damaging more than any bill you can imagine,” Hendel said. “This bill is one small step that can maybe deliver a message and has very limited impact.”