The Knesset voted today to revoke the parliamentary privileges of MK Hanin Zoabi, an Arab deputy who participated in the ill-fated flotilla that attempted to break the Israeli siege of Gaza last May. The scene in the Knesset appears to have devolved into something of a circus: A deputy from Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party handed MK Zoabi a mock Iranian passport, accusing her of joining the ranks of Israel’s enemies.
As luck would have it, I had dinner last night with Israel’s Minister of Minorities Avishay Braverman, a member of the Labor Party. Did rescinding MK Zoabi’s privileges represent a breach of Israel’s much-touted equality between its Jewish citizens and its Arab minority, which represent one-fifth of Israel’s population? While he condemned her actions, Braverman also said, "I do not support this sort of populist action" against Zoabi.
This is just the latest dispute between Braverman and Lieberman, who have come to represent opposite poles in the debate over Israel’s policy toward its Arab minority. And Braverman left little doubt about his opinion toward his coalition partner: When asked about the possibility of population swaps between Israel and a nascent Palestinian state in the event of a peace agreement, an idea for which Lieberman voiced support, Braverman said, "It will never happen. Never never…What Foreign Minister Lieberman is doing is making statements to win a few seats."
And then there is Lierberman’s call for instituting a loyalty oath that Arab Israelis would have to sign to sign or losing their citizenship, which some have credited with Lieberman’s strong showing in Israel’s most recent election. This idea, Braverman said, was shot down by the Labor Party ministers and even right-wing ministers, such as Benny Begin. But before it was rejected, Braverman said, "Lieberman got his headlines."
The defeat of these initiatives is certainly encouraging. Less encouraging, however, is the apparently enduring belief, held by a number of successful right-wing politicians, that flogging Israel’s Arab minority is a useful way to win votes. Effective political grandstanding on this issue, after all, could easily transform itself into changes in government policy that could erode Israel’s commitment to equality, and take Western support along with it.