Suspension legislation put on hold after Knesset backlash

President Reuven Rivlin on Monday voiced his objection to a bill seeking to allow parliament to suspend or dismiss lawmakers over conduct unbecoming, saying the Knesset cannot take the judiciary’s place on such matters.

The bill, sponsored by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was drafted following the firestorm sparked by three Israeli Arab MKs’ meeting with terrorists’ families two weeks ago, for which they were temporarily suspended from parliament by the Knesset’s Ethics Committee.

Condemnations for the meeting were heard from across the political spectrum, and the case, compounded by other incidents of scandalous behavior by other lawmakers, prompted many MKs to demand the Knesset be allowed to take harsher measures against rogue lawmakers.

“The Knesset, as the legislator, cannot be allowed to turn into an investigative, punitive instrument. This will undermine its purpose, and in the long run the only injured party will be the State of Israel. If there is suspicion of illegal conduct by MKs, it is up to the attorney general to order an investigation in their case, and all legal measures must be exhausted to deal with them, after they are stripped of their immunity,” Rivlin said.

The legislation proposal, dubbed the “suspension bill,” would enable a special majority vote of 90 MKs, similar to the majority necessary to suspend the president or the Knesset speaker, to impeach lawmakers found guilty of conduct unbecoming. The bill would allow the Knesset to suspend such MKs for either short periods or for the duration of the Knesset’s term. It also calls for the suspension of pay and any other benefits enjoyed by incumbent lawmakers, and seeks to strip suspended MKs of their parliamentary immunity.

As the bill constitutes an amendment to Basic Law: The Government, it requires a majority of 61 MKs to pass.

Rivlin said the bill was “an example of problematic understanding of parliamentary democracy. The president and Knesset speaker are elected by the Knesset, and therefore the Knesset has the power to dismiss them.”

Under Israeli law, while the Knesset can take various disciplinary actions against MKs who abuse their office, as elected public officials parliament cannot dismiss them unless the attorney general strips them of their parliamentary immunity.

Also on Monday, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein expressed his reservations over the suspension bill, saying he would make his decision on the matter only after reading the bill’s final draft.

On Sunday, Edelstein said, “There is no such bill right now, and even if there were, this kind of legislation proposal will not be presented to the Knesset while I’m the speaker. This isn’t the greatest idea.”

Sources in the Knesset Speaker’s Office told Israel Hayom that Edelstein’s reservations pertained to the original draft of the bill, which included nonspecific language as to the nature of “conduct unbecoming” punishable by impeachment.

The final draft of the bill would change the reason for an MK’s potential suspension from “conduct unbecoming” to “supporting terrorism,” which Edelstein is likely to support, one source said.

The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee was scheduled to launch a rapid legislation process for the bill Wednesday, but committee chairman MK Nissan Slomiansky (Habayit Hayehudi) told Army Radio Tuesday that he decided to defer the process “until such time that I know it could pass a vote. There is no point in working on a bill you know can’t pass.”

Still, Immigrant Absorption Minister Zeev Elkin, tasked by Netanyahu to oversee the rapid legislation process, said Tuesday he was sure work on the suspension bill will continue.

“The initiative to remove MKs who cross the line from parliament is one that enjoys vast public support, it has for a very long time. The public expects the Knesset to stop being impotent,” he said.

Elkin said he found Rivlin’s remarks “surprising. They don’t match reality. I can’t understand exactly what he’s saying on … how the Knesset is unable to hold judicial proceedings, because — as he himself said — the Knesset can hold them regarding the president. Is the president different from [Joint Arab List MK] Hanin Zoabi? The Knesset can hold judicial proceedings.”

The Constitution Committee was also scheduled to debate an amendment to Basic Law: The Knesset, allowing parliament to suspend MKs who support lone terrorists.

Basic Law: The Knesset currently lists three reasons rendering an individual or a party ineligible for a parliament seat: Negating Israel’s existence as a Jewish and democratic state, inciting racism, and supporting the armed struggle of an enemy entity or terrorist organization against Israel.

Committee legal counsel Sigal Kogot said the amendment was “highly problematic” as while “the Knesset may change constitutional law to include other reasons for impeachment … it must understand that it may eventually hinder MKs’ legitimate ability to perform their duty … resulting in the under-representation of their constituency.”

Kogot suggested that the amendment be revised to mandate a larger majority vote for such measures, as well as sufficing with only two reasons — inciting racism and supporting a terrorist organization — as grounds for impeachment.