Will Israel’s right-wing government keep anti-Zionist MK as deputy speaker?

New row pits Likud and ultra-Orthodox parties against Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit.

By Adina Katz, World Israel News

After weeks of wrangling over coalition negotiations, Israel’s 37th government is finally in place — however, not all disputes have been settled, and a new row now threatens coalition unity.

The question is that of the appointment of MK Ahmad Tibi, head of the Arab Ta’al party and a member of the opposition, as deputy speaker of the Knesset.

According to Israeli law, there may be up to seven deputy speakers of the Knesset, but the position is still considered an important one, as deputies frequently step in for the Speaker during Knesset debates. Predictably, Tibi’s appointment is being opposed by the Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit parties, which label him a supporter of terrorism.

“My vote will not go to benefit Ahmad Tibi, a man who supports terrorism and who was Arafat’s deputy,” Otzma Yehudit MK Zvika Fogel told Radio 103FM on Sunday.

“There’s no way that my vote will contribute to his appointment to such a senior position. If it had been a different Arab [Knesset] member who recognized the right of the State to exist as a Jewish state, he would probably have won my vote.

“If it were up to me,” he added, “Tibi would not be serving in the Knesset at all. Our enemies should not be allowed within the Knesset.”

Read  'I never stated that she believes in Jesus': Rabbi sues Lihi Lapid for 'defamation'

Indeed, the appointment of another Arab MK, Mansour Abbas of the United Arab List (Ra’am) party, as Deputy Speaker in 2020 passed peacefully. At the time, Abbas, whose party later joined the Bennett-Lapid government, stressed that he was in favor of cooperating with all Knesset members “as a matter of principle,” as the parties “represent Israeli society, and I accept the democratic choices of Jewish-Israeli society, just like I ask Jewish-Israeli society to accept the choices of Arab-Israeli society.”

Tibi, however, has been consistently outspoken in denying Israel’s legitimacy as a democratic or a Jewish state. National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of Otzma Yehudit, has frequently clashed with the anti-Israel MK, at least on one occasion regarding the latter’s position (since 2006) as deputy speaker.

In July 2021, Ben-Gvir ascended to the Knesset podium during a debate chaired by Tibi as deputy speaker and began his speech by saying: “With the permission of the Knesset Speaker, Mr. Minister, your excellency,” excluding Tibi from the list.

When Tibi interrupted Ben-Gvir, demanding to be addressed as “Mr. Deputy Speaker,” as is customary, Ben-Gvir refused. “You are a terrorist, not a ‘sir’ or a ‘mister.’ You should be in the Syrian Parliament, not here,” he said.

Tibi then ordered Knesset ushers to remove Ben-Gvir first from the podium and then from the plenum; Ben-Gvir had to be physically dragged away.

Read  Ben-Gvir: Next political assassination is being planned

In June of this year, Tibi and another Arab MK, Osama Saadi, charged at Ben-Gvir on the Knesset floor over his proposal to implement the death penalty for terrorists. An usher physically held them back.

On other occasions, Tibi was among lawmakers who attacked a police officer, helped a rioter evade arrest, and made statements that are likely considered incitement under Israeli law.

‘We came here to rule’

According to a report on Israel’s Hebrew-language Channel 12, the Likud party, headed by Prime Minister Netanyahu, favors keeping Tibi on as deputy speaker, as do the haredi Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) parties, which have, according to Channel 12, a longstanding policy of an “alliance of minorities” between Arabs and haredim in the Knesset.

However, one Likud MK is attempting to sway her fellow party members to abstain from voting for Tibi (as voting against appointments to speaker positions is not customary). Tally Gotliv appealed to fellow Likud lawmakers “not to vote for Ahmad Tibi for the position of Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, [a man who was] the close advisor of the mass murderer Arafat and who treats us, as right-wingers, with disdain and hatred.”

“We came here to rule. We came here to form a stable and strong right-wing government, not to vote for Ahmad Tibi,” she stated.

Read  Netanyahu: Opposition using judicial reforms as pretext to undo election

Knesset laws require speakers to be non-partisan, although they do vote in the plenum. Speakers, according to Knesset bylaws, “manage the business of the Knesset, represent it to the outside world, protect its dignity, maintain order at its sessions, and make sure that its bylaws are followed. [They] preside over Knesset sessions, conduct them, put questions to a vote and determine the result, as well as the result of all elections that take place in the Knesset.”

In addition, if for whatever reason the position of President of the State of Israel is vacant, it is the Knesset speaker who steps in to serve as interim president.

Speakers also have the power to “refuse to approve for debate bills that, in their opinion, are racist in their essence or that reject the existence of the State of Israel as the State of the Jewish People.”

This amendment to a bylaw was put in place in 1984, after a Knesset speaker disqualified a bill submitted by the now-defunct Kach party, led by late MK Meir Kahane, on the grounds that it was “racist.” Kahane appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor and established that Knesset speakers do not have the authority to disqualify bills due to their content.