Last week, amid the frenzy surrounding the kidnapping of three young Israeli hitchhikers in the West Bank, Sharon Gal, a DJ for Radio Tel Aviv picked up the phone and called Haneen Zoabi.
It was a safe bet: The Israeli-Arab member of Knesset has a penchant for provocation, which reached its peak when she sailed on the Mavi Marmara in 2010, defying the Israel Defense Forces’ blockade on Gaza and confronting the soldiers who boarded the ship. This time, too, Zoabi did not disappoint.
“Do you not consider the kidnappers to be terrorists?” Gal asked a little while into the interview.
“That’s a naïve question,” Zoabi replied. “Is it strange that people who are under an occupation and who live lives that aren’t normal and who live in a reality in which Israel kidnaps detainees every day, is it strange that they’ll end up kidnapping?”
“As far as you’re concerned,” Gal continued, “they’re not terrorists.”
“They’re not terrorists,” Zoabi replied. She did go on to say that she did not agree with the kidnappers and argued that Israeli society had to learn to accept the other side’s pain, but little of that mattered—nuance has a habit of fading away when offered after an exoneration of terrorist acts. Gal got heated, Zoabi hung up, and another media storm was created.
As is the case with all things Zoabi, the affair found its way to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein’s desk, after the Israeli police recommended launching an investigation to determine whether or not Zoabi’s speech constituted incitement. And, as always after one of Zoabi’s provocations, a gallery of Israeli legislators offered harsh condemnations, with foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman going as far as calling Zoabi a terrorist.
But no concrete measure against Zoabi is likely to be taken anytime soon. The legislator’s particular genius, it seems, lies in realizing the extent to which Israeli democracy is willing to preserve its tolerance for dissent, even when lines are crossed and laws are broken.
Zoabi’s first test of this flexibility came right after her stint on the Marmara, when a Knesset committee voted 7-1 to revoke her parliamentary immunity, a preliminary step before taking her to court. Unlike most parliaments in the world, which offer legislators protection from prosecution solely for their speech and their votes while on duty, the Knesset awards its members a far-reaching immunity that covers not only verbal expressions but actions taken while outside the parliament. Based largely on this protection, the Speaker of the Knesset at the time, Reuven Rivlin, rejected the committee’s vote and reinstated Zoabi’s rights. It took a subsequent full Knesset vote to punish Zoabi by temporarily stripping her of a few of her privileges, taking away her diplomatic passport, and refusing her the right to travel to nations that have no formal relations with Israel. That was the extent of her punishment. Pressed to bring further charges against Zoabi, Weinstein declined, citing “significant evidentiary and legal difficulties.”
Zoabi’s colleagues, however, were undeterred. In the winter of 2012, Likud’s Ofir Akunis filed a request, backed by the necessary number of supporting signatures, to have Zoabi disqualified from serving as a member of the Knesset.
His reasoning was sound. According to article 7A of Israel’s Basic Law: The Knesset, “a person shall not be a candidate for election to the Knesset, if the goals or actions of … the person, expressly or by implication, include one of the following: (1) negation of the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state; (2) incitement to racism; (3) support for armed struggle by a hostile state or a terrorist organization against the State of Israel.” A supporter of a binational state, Zoabi meets the first condition. A provocateur fond of making sweeping statements like expressing her wish that Israel’s Arabs take up arms against the Jewish state, she most likely meets the second one as well. And her participation in the flotilla—organized by IHH, an organization with links to Hamas and other terrorist groups—covers condition number three. Based on the evidence, the Central Elections Committee voted 19-9 to have Zoabi barred.
This was not the first time such a decision was reached. Other MKs have made statements or taken actions that have violated article 7A before, and like Zoabi they too were the subjects of internal Knesset disciplinary procedures. Each time, however—with the exception of the decision to bar the Jewish supremacist party Kach from participating in the 1985 elections—the Supreme Court reversed the Knesset’s decision and allowed the MKs in question to run. It did the same for Zoabi in December of 2012, clearing her to run again.
Based on these precedents, then, Zoabi would almost certainly continue to have a privileged platform from which to voice her incendiary opinions. This is troubling: While Israel’s robust free speech laws ought to and will continue to protect Zoabi’s right to say whatever she wants, permitting her to serve as a member of Israel’s legislative body undercuts the democracy’s ability to defend itself against those seeking to undermine it.
This is, or ought to be, a simple enough point. Expressing criticism, even harshly, is part of a lawmaker’s duties. But when the criticism spills over into calls for violence against the state, when it expresses itself in actions that align the lawmaker with the state’s bitterest foes, and when it can no longer distinguish between legitimate opposition and craven acts of terrorism, it can no longer be considered legitimate and ought to enjoy no protection.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.