Israel: This isn’t how you defend democracy

Netanyahu’s attempts to ban Palestinian politicians from the parliament can only harm Israel’s democracy.

Supreme Court
From left to right, Arab politicians Hanin Zoabi, Bassel Ghattas and Jamal Zahalka [EPA]

Last week, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking at a party meeting, said that democracy had to “protect itself and defend itself”.

To which you kind of want to reply that, these days, democracy all over the world needs to defend itself from governments more than anything else. Israel’s current, hard-right coalition government seems to be a case in point, as numerous Israeli human rights groups have been cautioning for some time.

And this current cautionary tale is essentially over the question of what democracies do with views they don’t like.

The Israeli parliament just suspended three of members of the Knesset (MKs) over what was described as “support for terrorism”. Such support was read in a trip taken by members of the Arab nationalist Balad party – part of the Joint Arab List that is currently the third largest bloc in parliament – who visited the East Jerusalem families of Palestinians who carried out deadly attacks against Israelis.

The MKs say it was a humanitarian visit, in solidarity with the families, who want Israel to release the bodies of their dead – which Israeli police will not release unless the families agree to certain conditions for holding funerals.

In the zero-sum conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, this visit by Balad officials is already bad enough for many Jewish Israelis, but what makes matters worse, in their eyes, is the reports that the lawmakers stood in a minute of silence for the killers.

There are all manner of ways in which you could mitigate the details of this trip: You could point out that prayer rituals do not judge the deeds of the dead; you could remind that Palestinians in Israel obviously have ties to and are a part of the Palestinian people and cause.

You could clarify that Israel’s public security minister, under whose remit the issue of returning the bodies of the attackers falls – and anyway, why hold onto bodies of the dead for political manoeuvre? – was aware of the visit to the families by those Balad MKs, who were liaising with him over the matter.

Does the parliament think it has the right to ban elected officials on the basis of 'providing support for acts of terror'? Who gets to define what that means?


You might also point out that justice minister Ayelet Shaked met with the mother of a Jewish-Israeli suspect in the arson attack that killed three Palestinians in the West Bank village, Duma, last year – so it’s not as though non-Jewish parliamentarians have a monopoly over meeting with the relatives of murderers.

And at this stage, you might want to interject that the families of killers are not themselves guilty of anything – and that Israel’s policies of collective punishment have tended to provoke more violence, not least because of this significant detail.

But strip all of this away and you’re left with an old and familiar challenge for democracy: How do you respond to people whose views you don’t share, and perhaps find abhorrent? In the Israeli context, this ought to carry an added layer of responsibility and sensitivity, because the people holding the views considered to be problematic are political representatives of a minority.

Yet, the exact opposite happened: The response showed all the sensitivity of a bulldozer – with government and opposition alike declaring that the Palestinian-Israeli MKs were breaking the law, flouting Israel, undermining democracy – indeed undermining the country’s very existence.

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If we may borrow from the – apparently misquoted – wording of a US major discussing the bombing of a village during the Vietnam war, the logic seems to be that, in order to save democracy we have to curtail a fifth of the population’s right to democracy.

Because how else would you define the barring of MKs representing Israel’s 20 percent Palestinian population? And where is Israel going with this one: Does the parliament think it has the right to ban elected officials on the basis of “providing support for acts of terror”? Who gets to define what that means?

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After the three lawmakers were given a three-month suspension, Netanyahu said he would push for a legislation that would allow parliamentarians to bar colleagues, on the basis of 90 votes (three-quarters of the house) to do so.


All of this is happening in the context of what has been described as an assault on other freedoms, too.

Last week, for instance, a bill requiring Israeli NGOs to detail foreign funding passed its first reading in the parliament – since its mostly left-wing groups that are so funded (right-wing groups tend to get privately funded), this can only be a politically loaded move.

Meanwhile, Israel’s justice minister is out to limit the powers of the Supreme Court – the bit that’s part of the checks and balances of a functioning democracy. And the coalition wants to enshrine Israel by law as a Jewish state, to the alarm of the 20-percent population of non-Jewish citizens.

Against this backdrop, it really isn’t important what we think about the Balad lawmakers’ visit to those Palestinian families. What matters is letting the commitment to uphold democracy, rather than knee-jerk sentiment, guide a parliamentary-level response to it.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.