Also in this Briefing
Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) party, has twice called in less than a week for Arabs MKs to be put on trial for treason and executed if found guilty. Lieberman, who surprised observers by winning 11 seats in the March elections, was recently courted by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for a seat in his new cabinet.
On 8 May, Lieberman presented a speech to the Knesset in which he proposed that any Arab politicians who were disloyal to the state should be punished. He added: “How is it that no Arab MK sings the national anthem or raises the flag on Independence Day?”
Lieberman did not mention that the national anthem and the flag of Israel contain words and symbols that specifically exclude the one in five of the Israeli population who is Arab. Independence Day celebrates the establishment of a Jewish state in 1948 when 750,000 Palestinians (80 per cent of the native population) fled or were terrorised from their homes by the Israeli army. On Independence Day most Palestinians, including the country’s Palestinian population, commemorate what they call the Nakba (Catastrophe) and remember the millions of Palestinians who are refused the right to return to their homes.
A few days previously, on 5 May, Lieberman expressed the hope that Arab legislators who met with the Hamas leadership be put on trial and executed “exactly like Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg trials and collaborators under the Vichy regime in France”.
He urged: “All those who collaborate with terror from within this House [the Knesset] must face sentencing.” He included in the list Arab MKs who meet members of Hamas, including those now in the Palestinian government, those who travel to Lebanon, and those who commemorate the Nakba instead of Independence Day.
His comments caused little shock, apart from criticisms in the Hebrew media that his comparisons with the Nazis “belittle” and “disrespect” the Holocaust – the former view expressed by Ephraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Israel, and the latter by historian Hanna Yablonka of Ben Gurion University.
The reaction from Ehud Olmert was muted too, with news of Lieberman’s outburst accompanied by reports in Ynet, the website of Israel’s biggest-selling newspaper, that the prime minister “continued to express hope that Israel Our Home will join the government”.
When challenged on the comments shortly before the new government was sworn in, the most Olmert could manage was vaguely to defend the Arab MKs from Lieberman’s allegations rather than denounce the comments as inflammatory and incitement. He observed: “Let’s not cross those certain lines that we tend to cross in the intensity of debate. We don’t have ‘more patriotic’ and ‘less patriotic’ here. I don’t see people who love the State of Israel more or less.”
Lieberman justified his attack on the Arab MKs, in particular, by citing a series of meetings they had held in recent weeks with elected Hamas leaders. The first meeting was held by Arab MKs from the United Arab List (UAL) party on April 19, in the immediate wake of a decision by the Israeli government to revoke the rights of three Hamas legislators and a cabinet minister to live in east Jerusalem.
The Arab MKs visited the Hamas legislators in an act of solidarity and to protest at their expulsion from the city, which was officially annexed by Israel in 1980 in violation of international law. They also said they hoped to explore ways with the Palestinian representatives to “end the bloodshed”.
A second meeting took place on 20 April between Arab MKs from the National Democratic Assembly and the Palestinian cabinet minister Mahmoud Abu Tir. Their meeting place, at the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs in Eizariya, had to be moved after Border Police blocked the MKs’ way. The leader of the NDA, Azmi Bishara, also met with the Palestinian foreign minister, Mahmoud al-Zahar, during a visit to Qatar in late April.
“Elections were held and Palestinian parliamentarians were elected,” said Jamal Zahalka of the NDA after his meeting with the Hamas legislators. “Some are inhabitants of Jerusalem and they lived there before Israel came and occupied them. You can’t leave someone without residency and citizenship.”
Lieberman’s attacks on the Arab MKs were only a more inflammatory version of widespread views expressed by other Jewish Knesset members.
After legal experts pointed out that the Arab MKs’ visits were within the law, Danny Naveh of Likud prepared to submit a bill to make it an offence for MKs to meet members of terror organisations – including, in Naveh’s view, the Palestinian government – without approval from the Israeli governnment.
Also, members of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee tried to have Taleb al-Sanaa, of the UAL, removed from his temporary position on the committee. The chairman, Yuval Steinitz, requested that al-Sanaa be barred from attending meetings. “In light of his meeting with Hamas, al-Sanaa should not take part in this sensitive committee,” he wrote in his request.
Haim Ramon, the new justice minister who also oversees appointments to Knesset committees, said he viewed the meetings with Hamas great severity and doubted if any Arab MK would be placed in the Foreign Affairs Committee. Senior Labor MK Ophir Pines Paz also denounced the Arab MKs, saying their acts could not be pardoned.
A lone voice of compromise came from former Labor cabinet minister Shlomo Ben Ami, who observed: “I think ways should be made to reach out to Hamas.” Referring to the historic treatment of the 10 or so Arab MKs in the Knesset, he added: “I think it is very important for the Arab MKs to participate in all the Knesset committees, to integrate them into the political system. Israeli politics in the last 10-12 years has been run as if we have 110 MKs and not 120 MKs.”
Neverthless, Ben Ami suggested that the Arab MKs should not be fully included in the parliament’s work. He reassured Israelis that the sessions of the main Foreign Affairs Committee where al-Sanaa sits were “no big deal in terms of what they expose there”, adding that the sessions were “practically broadcast on TV. Nothing is secret.”
He noted that security clearance was required for some of the subcommittees where the real work was done. “I’m sure the Arab MKs won’t be admitted to them,” he added.
I’lam Media Center for Arab Palestinians in Israel is a non-profit organization based in Nazareth. It was founded in 2000, by a group of Arab journalists and academics. As the only Arab Palestinian media organization in Israel, I’lam is deeply committed to the democratization of media policies, media practices, and the media landscape in Israel.