On Feb. 19, the Knesset (Israeli parliament) will vote on a motion to expel one of its members, Ofer Cassif, a Jewish politician from the Palestinian-Arab joint list Hadash-Ta’al, following his statements claiming Israel is committing war crimes in the ongoing war in Gaza and in support of the South African complaint against Israel in the International Court of Justice (ICJ). If the Knesset expels Cassif, it will represent the national legislature’s first use of the Suspension Law and signal a sharp curtailing of legal space for non-Zionist players in Israeli politics.   

The Suspension Law, passed in 2016, grants the Knesset the authority to expel a member in a unique, semi-adjudicatory process. According to the law, a group of 70 or more members of the Knesset (MKs) can present a motion to expel a fellow MK if they believe their colleague’s actions could constitute “incitement to racism” or “support for an armed struggle […] against the State of Israel.” The motion must first be put to a vote in the Knesset House Committee. If it passes with a three-quarters majority, it then moves to a vote on the Knesset floor, requiring a similar three-quarters majority. If the expulsion is approved, the expelled MK has two weeks to appeal the decision before the Supreme Court.

A history of attacks on MK Cassif

The Israeli right wing, as well as many centrists, have long attacked MK Cassif, who has been a fierce voice of the post-Zionist left in Israel as the representative of the Israeli Communist Party within Hadash-Ta’al. Since he was first elected in 2019, he has been at the center of several controversies, such as for describing the Israeli occupation as “terror” or calling Israeli settlers “monsters.” Cassif has also been a critic of Israel’s actions in the war in Gaza, alleging the Israeli military commits war crimes, and he was one of the first MKs to call for a cease-fire. Recently, he signed a letter, together with over 200 Israelis, expressing support for South Africa’s genocide case against Israel before the ICJ, stating that “[his] constitutional duty is to Israeli society and all of its residents, not to a government whose members and its coalition are calling for ethnic cleansing and even actual genocide.” 

His support of the South African ICJ case ignited harsh criticism across the political spectrum in Israel. Israeli parliamentarians from the opposition and the ruling coalition came together to collect the 70 signatures needed to start the expulsion process. On Jan. 30, the Knesset House Committee held a hearing to rule on his expulsion. The committee is supposed to conduct the hearing in an adjudicatory manner, meaning MKs are required to apply the law impartially. Cassif’s actions, as explained by the Knesset legal advisory team and Cassif’s lawyers, did not meet the necessary statutory standard of supporting an “armed struggle” against the state of Israel. Quite the contrary, Cassif has repeatedly repudiated Hamas’ actions and called for a cease-fire. Despite this legal guidance, the committee voted 14 to 2 in favor of his removal, providing a sufficient majority to move the motion to a vote on the floor, expected to be held on Feb. 19. 

Potential political and legal outcomes

Proponents of the expulsion process are close to achieving the 90 votes needed to pass the motion. The initial petition received signatures from 85 MKs, representing all the parties in the parliament except for the Labor Party, Hadash-Ta’al, and Raam. That means they need only five more MKs to reach the three-quarters majority. Because the three opposing parties only hold 14 seats out of the total of 120, the outcome would be determined by how the centrist Yesh Atid party, led by former Prime Minister Yair Lapid, plays its cards. So far, Yesh Atid is the only party that split over this vote, with several members signing on in favor of the motion and others refraining from doing so. Lapid said he would personally vote against the motion to expel Cassif but would not dictate to his party members how to vote.

In his remarks, Lapid presented the pragmatic Zionist center-left argument to defend Cassif, similar to the arguments made by the Labor party, underscoring that although he does not believe Cassif belongs in the Knesset, such a motion would play into the hands of the right-wing attempt to delegitimize the Supreme Court. Cassif, who vowed to appeal an expulsion to the court, has a strong case. As the attorney general and the Knesset legal advisory team have argued, whether or not the Knesset members regard his statements as condemnable, they do not rise to the level of supporting an armed struggle. That could compel the Supreme Court to intervene and overturn a political decision that enjoys wide popularity among the general public and lawmakers at a time when the court is in a weak position institutionally. In the months before Oct. 7, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government pushed to overhaul the judiciary, igniting an immense protest movement. Minister of Justice Yariv Levin has deliberately refrained from filling two vacancies on the Supreme Court, leaving the country’s highest judicial body without a permanent chief justice for the first time in history and giving conservative justices the strongest majority ever seen. At this time, as the Supreme Court struggles to protect its legitimacy, there is a risk that a ruling protecting Cassif would further fuel right-wing rage over the court and provide the public justification to relaunch the attempt to overhaul the judiciary.

Lapid’s argument about the delegitimization of the court, which was amplified by politicians from the Labor Party and Hadash-Ta’al, is designed to resonate with other parties in the anti-Netanyahu bloc that have, so far, been supportive of the motion to expel, including Benny Gantz’s National Unity party or Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. These parties played a significant role in last year’s protests against the judicial overhaul. However, as the Cassif expulsion case has highlighted, despite months of chanting pro-democracy slogans in the streets, these parties also have some strong right-wing populist representatives and ideologies that outweigh their anti-Netanyahu tendencies. Furthermore, besides arguments about the delegitimization of the court, there is a risk — though probably unlikely — that the Supreme Court would not intervene at all in the Knesset decision to expel Cassif. Given its political vulnerability as an institution, continuous failure to protect civil rights during the ongoing war, the substantial parliamentary majority backing the motion, and the unprecedented conservative majority among justices, it is more challenging than ever to predict how the court will decide.

Implications for Arab-Palestinian political rights

How the expulsion proceeding unfolds also has long-term implications for the representation of Arab-Palestinian and non-Zionist politicians in the Knesset. At the time the Suspension Law passed, civil rights groups in Israel warned that the legislation would be used to disproportionately target Arab-Palestinian parties and MKs because of their limited representation in the Knesset and the overwhelming Zionist majority in the parliament (approximately 90%). The political context that instigated the introduction of the law, an attempt to expel members of the Arab party Balad (National Democratic Alliance), underlines this concern.

The Suspension Law is part of the long-term goal of the political right in Israel to strip Palestinian citizens of Israel of representation, unless they relinquish their national Palestinian aspirations. Throughout the last two decades, the right wing under Netanyahu promoted other measures to limit Palestinian parliamentary representation. For example, in 2014, the Knesset raised the percentage threshold to enter parliament to four seats — aimed at blocking the Arab parties, most of which held fewer seats at the time. (Eventually, this attempt failed, as the Arab-Palestinian parties united under a joint list, bridging their profound ideological, religious, and cultural differences.)

Moreover, in the past two decades, some Arab parties participated in the elections only after the Supreme Court intervened on behalf of several Arab and non-Zionist parties and politicians, including Ofer Cassif, who had been denied the right to run for office by the Central Elections Committee — a body composed primarily of representatives of the political parties with seats in the Knesset. The court ruled in these cases that the evidence against Palestinian parties and representatives, even if condemnable, did not reach the critical mass needed to prove they violated the clause prohibiting the negation of the existence of the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, incitement to racism, or support for an armed struggle against Israel. Cassif and his attorneys believe these precedents, among other legal arguments, would oblige the Supreme Court to overturn an expulsion vote against him by the Knesset.

Conclusion: A turning point for Israeli democracy?

In the aftermath of Oct. 7, the expulsion proceedings against Cassif might be a turning point in the wider initiative to block Israel’s Arab-Palestinian parties from political participation. In addition to this attempt to strip Cassif of his Knesset seat, in the last four months, police have been cracking down on Arab-Palestinian parties’ freedom of assembly. The police barred Hadash-Ta’al from protesting against the war in Gaza or organizing a conference to discuss how the party should respond to it. The police also detained four former Knesset members from Balad because of a “conspiracy” to participate in a protest in Nazareth against the war.

With this historical and contemporary context in mind, the current push to expel Ofer Cassif is just the beginning of the bolstered attempt to block the entrance of Arab-Palestinians to parliament. As MK Aida Touma-Suleiman of Hadash said during Cassif’s hearing in the Knesset House Committee, if these measures succeed, they will take away two of the only rights Palestinian citizens of Israel enjoy equally to their Jewish counterparts — the rights to vote and be elected to public office. But even if the expulsion fails, the political undercurrents that enabled the formation of such a broad, overwhelming coalition of Zionist MKs against Cassif are a warning sign of the start of a new phase in the battle to defend Arab-Palestinian representation in the Knesset. 


Eyal Lurie-Pardes is a Visiting Fellow in the Program on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute after receiving the competitive University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School LLM Post-Graduate Fellowship.

Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images

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