Just over a week ago four MKs from the Joint List – Joseph Jabarin, Masud Gnaim, Jamal Zahalka and Aida Touma-Suleiman – traveled to Brussels and Paris to hold meetings with various officials in the European Union and the OECD. The trip was financed by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, an association engaged in education that is connected to the German Die Link political party.
The two main issues raised with those in the EU were the basic law that is currently being promoted in the Knesset regarding Israel being the nationstate of the Jewish people, and the alleged Israeli government policy of racial discrimination against Israel’s Arab citizens in general and the Beduin in the Negev in particular.
I doubt whether the four Arab MKs really believe the EU can do anything to induce the government to give up its efforts to enact the private members’ bill currently being deliberated on in a special committee chaired by MK Miki Zohar (Likud) in preparation for first reading, or to change its policy vis-à-vis the unrecognized Beduin settlements in the Negev. Certainly the embassies of the EU and the EU member states in Tel Aviv are following the debates in Israel around both these issues, so that one cannot but conclude that what the Arab MKs were trying to do was add fuel to a fire of criticism of Israel’s current government that is already blazing in Brussels.
The main issue raised with the officials in the OECD was the budget earmarked by the Finance Ministry to benefit Israel’s Arab population, which according to the four MKs is insufficient and moreover does not reach its intended destination. They mentioned the insufficient progress in integrating the Arabs into the Israeli labor market in particular.
In this case the complaint is understandable; two years ago the OECD officially lauded the Israeli government for the measures it had allegedly taken to achieve this goal, and the Arab MKs felt that the compliments had been given on the basis of false reports from Jerusalem. Since the OECD regularly reports on the economies of member states it is certainly legitimate for a population group in Israel to complain about the inaccuracy of the data provided by the government in relation to it.
One might, however, question the sagacity of the manner in which this was done, but it is certainly less annoying than the approach to the EU. The reaction of the political Right in Israel to the delegation’s trip to Brussels and Paris was extreme.
TV Channel 7 termed it “diplomatic subversion,” while Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked referred to the four MKs as a fifth column, stating that “the Arabs of Israel and the Knesset should denounce the fifth column that tries to destroy the coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Israel, and execute political attacks against the state of which they pretend to be citizens. The way for MKs to influence is in the Knesset, not by means of smearing the state at cocktail parties in Europe.”
Last Monday Jabarin, who is a member of the Knesset’s Ethics Committee, answered Shaked in the Knesset plenum, saying, “ I am sorry to see... that Justice Minister Shaked says... that the Israeli Arabs and the Knesset should disgorge the fifth column... All this is because MKs hold meetings? I wonder... how we reached such a situation, in which MKs in this house cannot go out and hold political meetings, as an integral part of their parliamentary work, and represent the concerns of their voters.”
Jabarin was inaccurate on two points. The first was that irrespective of Shaked’s unbridled and libelous criticism (which also contained several factual inaccuracies), the Arab MKs are free to hold whatever meetings they please with whomever they please, anywhere, as long as they are not acting in breach of the law, and in this case they were not.
The second is that while what the Arab delegation did is not prohibited, it is not at all certain that such meetings are “an integral part of their parliamentary work” as opposed to being part of their political work. While the courts have dealt extensively with actions that may be considered part of what MKs do within the framework of their job and for which they enjoys immunity, it is not clear what political actions are not considered part of the job, and for which they do not enjoy immunity.
One of the questions that has been asked by those who, like Shaked, feel that what the Arab MKs did was outrageous is how it came about that the Knesset Ethics Committee approved this particular trip. (The committee must approve trips abroad by MKs that are not financed by the Knesset but by external bodies.)
In a legal opinion published last May, Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon explained that the Ethics Committee is concerned with three things only in this regard: whether the body financing the trip is a business entity (prohibited); whether the financing can be viewed as a prohibited benefit to the MK; and whether there is congruity between the length of the paid stay abroad and the activity for which the MK was invited.
The legal opinion was issued in response to a proposal by chairman of the Knesset House Committee Yoav Kisch to enable the Ethics Committee to refuse approval of trips financed by foreign bodies under certain circumstances (aimed primarily against Arab and left-wing MKs).
“At present,” wrote Yinon, “the approval of the Ethics Committee for trips abroad has not included an examination of the purpose of the trips, their essence and their importance, or the identity of the inviting body (beyond its being a public and not a private body). It has been accepted... that these issues are beyond the mandate of the committee, since they are at the heart of the discretion and political freedom of action of the MKs, that should not be meddled with.”
I suspect the issue of the four MKs’ meetings in Europe last week will be brought up in the House Committee and/or Ethics Committee. In the former the four MKs will face a hostile chairman, who has proven in the past he is not afraid to reject the advice of the Knesset legal adviser if it does not suit him politically. Perhaps surprisingly, in the latter they will face an understanding chairman – MK Yitzhak Vaknin (Shas) – who appears to take the freedom of action and expression of MKs more seriously than does Kisch.