In early January, Israeli lawmaker Ofer Cassif caused a political firestorm when he expressed his support for South Africa’s case accusing Israel of “genocidal acts” against Gaza’s Palestinians at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Now, Cassif risks the prospect of being removed from office altogether after an Israeli parliamentary committee voted 14-2 on Tuesday to expel him from the Knesset, the Israeli legislature. The final decision, which will be put to Cassif’s fellow lawmakers in an unprecedented vote, could come in a matter of weeks.
Cassif has long been one of the most vocal opponents of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. In the days following Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre, which he described as “appalling,” he accused the Israeli government of using the carnage “as an excuse to attack Gaza as part of the realization of this fascist subjugation plan.”
While Cassif’s expulsion is far from certain (if the Knesset votes to affirm the decision, as is expected, he will still have the opportunity to appeal the decision to the country’s Supreme Court), his colleagues say that the prospect of his removal marks a dangerous precedent—one in which political dissent, particularly against the ongoing war in Gaza, is no longer tolerated.
“They are trying to criminalize the anti-war position,” says Aida Touma-Sliman, who like Cassif is a lawmaker for the left-wing Democratic Front for Peace and Equality Party (known as al-Jabha or Hadash in Arabic and Hebrew, respectively). The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the country’s oldest human rights organization, called Tuesday’s vote “a shameful act of McCarthyism.”
While the effort to expel Cassif has a political basis—at least 85 lawmakers spanning the Israeli far-right to the center backed the move, including the country’s ostensibly moderate opposition party Yesh Atid—it doesn’t necessarily have a legal one. Under Israeli law, a legislator can only be impeached if they are found to have incited racism or supported armed struggle against the state of Israel. While some lawmakers pointed to Cassif’s signing a petition in support of South Africa’s case at the ICJ as evidence of the latter, Cassif dismissed the accusation as “a lie,” noting in a recent interview with Democracy Now that “my signature in support of this South African appeal to the ICJ is not against Israel. It’s for Israel and against the Israeli government and its policies.” (Cassif declined to comment further until the impeachment proceedings conclude.)
This isn’t the first time that Cassif has had his political position face legal scrutiny. In 2019, he was disqualified from standing in the Knesset elections over provocative comments made four years earlier when Cassif—then a political science lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem—called the country’s then-justice minister Ayelet Shaked “neo-Nazi scum.” The Supreme Court ultimately overturned that decision, paving the way for Cassif to win a seat as part of the Hadash-Ta’al joint list.
Cassif’s defenders are confident that the law is on his side—a position that was buttressed by Israel’s deputy attorney general Avital Sompolinsky, who told the Knesset House Committee ahead of their Tuesday vote that, insofar as the allegations against Cassif are concerned, “no foundation has been established to demonstrate the existence of the cause of support for the armed struggle of a terrorist organization.” She added that Cassif’s removal could breach “in a dangerous and precedent-setting manner” the criteria that the government uses to remove lawmakers from office, warning that it could “cause harm to Israeli democracy and its resilience.”
As Touma-Sliman sees it, that harm is already being realized. In November, the Palestinian-Arab lawmaker was handed a two-month suspension from the Knesset over a social media post in which she criticized Israel’s bombardment of Al-Shifa Hospital. In going after Cassif, she says, “They want to criminalize all of us. It’s not only Ofer. We understand that very clearly.”
Should Cassif’s impeachment be approved by the Knesset (where it requires 90 of the legislature’s 120 lawmakers to back it) and his case be appealed, Touma-Sliman warns that it could prompt yet another political fight over the country’s Supreme Court, the independence of which was central to the pro-democracy movement that rocked the country last year. “They are cooperating with the right-wing in a process that will bring a full attack and campaign against the Supreme Court if they reverse the decision,” she says of Israel’s more moderate parties. “They are creating a precedent that will be very dangerous on what is left of [Israeli] democracy.”Leave a comment