Member of Knesset Haneen Zoabi “went too far” when she said that the Palestinian kidnappers of three Israeli teens murdered last summer were not terrorists, according to Supreme Court President Justice Miriam Naor, in explaining the court’s reasons for not interfering in the Balad MK’s six-month suspension from the Knesset.
Zoabi had petitioned the High Court in the wake of the Knesset Ethics Committee’s decision in July to suspend her. The court rejected the petition in December, but only published its reasons on Wednesday — two days before the Central Elections Committee is due to discuss requests not to allow Zoabi to run for the Knesset in next month’s election.
The ruling was written by Justice Naor, with Justices Elyakim Rubinstein, Esther Hayut and Hanan Melcer concurring. Justice Salim Joubran, who also serves as chairman of the Central Elections Committee, held a minority opinion.
Zoabi’s statements of June 2014 in which she encouraged the Palestinians “to put Israel under siege instead of negotiating with it” and said that the kidnappers “are not terrorists” were at the center of the ruling.
Justice Naor ruled that the Knesset’s Ethics Committee had the authority to discuss Zoabi’s statements and that it had acted according to the broad jurisdiction it had been given. “Zoabi’s statements in the interview and in the essay were interpreted as support for terrorism and for the killing of civilians,” Naor wrote. “The statements in the case before us are not criticism of the government’s policy during wartime, nor are they criticism of Knesset legislation or of political actions by the majority. The gravity of the case is even worse considering the timing of the petitioner’s statements, several days after the teenage boys were kidnapped, when their fate was unknown, and the height of Operation Protective Edge. We must also take into account the cumulative effect of the petitioner’s statements, which were made in close proximity. In the present case, with all its circumstances, the petitioner went too far.”
The Knesset’s Ethics Committee ruled that Zoabi’s statements constituted a violation of the Knesset’s rules of ethics, which state, among other things, that a Knesset member must work to advance “the good of the country.” “It seems that extreme actions or statements that give legitimacy to acts of terrorism against the country’s citizens do not fit the requirement of working for the good of the state,” Naor wrote.
Naor rejected the explanation provided by Zoabi’s attorneys: that her intention was to encourage non-violent civil disobedience on the part of the Palestinians and express support for a “political siege” on Israel. As for the unusual punishment meted out to Zoabi, which is more severe than any punishment imposed before, Naor stated that since the Knesset had dispersed and the period of suspension was for a shorter time period, there was no reason to intervene in the decision.
The dissenting view
Justice Salim Joubran wrote at length about the high degree of caution that must be exercised before curbing the freedom of expression of a Knesset member, especially one representing a minority group. Referring to the broad language of the ethics rules on the basis of which Zoabi was convicted, he wrote that “the conviction of Knesset members on the basis of those instructions should be limited solely to cases in which the content of the statement is clear, unequivocal and extreme. In the case before us, I believe that we cannot draw such clear and unequivocal content from the petitioner’s statements, both in light of her reservations regarding the act of the kidnapping at the time of her statements and of her later explanations in the media. Therefore, my position is that the Ethics Committee’s decision was rendered improperly.”
Zoabi petitioned the High Court against the suspension, along with the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. The petitioners argued that the Ethics Committee had exceeded its authority and undermined freedom of political expression, and that the decision was discriminatory and disproportionate. Zoabi’s six-month suspension ended on January 29, over a month after the Knesset had already dissolved itself.