Cabinet set to approve controversial ‘Jewish state’ bill
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Cabinet set to approve controversial ‘Jewish state’ bill

Attorney general warns legislation, backed by PM, would significantly change the founding principles of Israel's constitutional law

Thousands of Jews wave Israeli flags as they celebrate Jerusalem Day by walking the streets of Jerusalem, through Damascus Gate on their way to the Western Wall on May 20, 2012. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Thousands of Jews wave Israeli flags as they celebrate Jerusalem Day by walking the streets of Jerusalem, through Damascus Gate on their way to the Western Wall on May 20, 2012. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The cabinet is expected to approve on Sunday two controversial bills that seek to enshrine Israel’s definition as a Jewish state among the country’s Basic Laws.

The first bill will be brought before the cabinet by coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud), who originally introduced it in 2011 along with then-Kadima MK Avi Dichter. The second bill was proposed by Likud MK Yariv Levin and Jewish Home party MK Ayelet Shaked.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proposed his own version of such legislation in May. He said then that the state lacked “adequate expression” of Israel’s “existence as the nation-state of the Jewish people” in the country’s set of Basic Laws, which constitute its de facto constitution.

Elkin, Levin and Shaked have agreed to amend their legislation so that their respective bills would square with Netanyahu’s proposal, Haaretz reported. The “softened” versions of the bills would apparently seek to define Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state, which upholds the rights of all its citizens under law,” though the wording is still being finalized.

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has repeatedly expressed his opposition to the private members’ bills and asserted that the government should not lend its support to the two pieces of legislation.

“It’s very problematic to me that the government supports [private Knesset members’] proposals that raise serious problems,” Weinstein wrote in a legal opinion published by the Walla news site. He said that in the proposed bills that have been drafted thus far, including the one to be put forward by Netanyahu, there are “significant changes in the founding principles of constitutional law as anchored in the Declaration of Independence and in the basic laws of the Knesset, which can flatten the democratic character of the state.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting on, November 16, 2014. (photo credit: Amit Shabi/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting on, November 16, 2014. (photo credit: Amit Shabi/POOL)

Netanyahu’s favored draft is apparently aimed to give equal weight to the principles of Israel as a democracy and as a Jewish state, but in versions that have been leaked to the media, it does so in separate sentences. “The right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people,” it specifies. “The State of Israel is a democratic state, founded on the principles of freedom, justice and peace, in accordance with the vision of Israel’s prophets, and upholds the individual rights of all of its citizens according to the law.”

This wording is intended by Netanyahu, among other implications, to make plain that Israel is not obligated to extend national rights to its minorities, the Yedioth Ahronoth daily reported on Thursday. Nonetheless, it said that the legislation department of the Justice Ministry considers the Netanyahu draft to adequately represent the necessary principle of equality, and quoted a legal opinion prepared by the department to that effect: “A correct legal reading of the wording shows that equality is included among the principles that form the basis” of the proposed legislation.

MK Zee'v Elkin (Likud). (photo credit: Flash 90)
MK Zee’v Elkin (Likud). (photo credit: Flash 90)

At a Likud faction meeting Monday, Netanyahu said the bill was a “response to those who are skeptical about the right of the Jews to their nation-state. In the State of Israel, every citizen has rights, regardless of religion, race, and gender, which are anchored in law. The issue of a Jewish and democratic state is not anchored; therefore we will insist that the law passes.”

The Elkin version was meant to be put to a ministerial vote last Sunday, but the referendum was postponed by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni by a week. Shortly afterward, outflanking Livni, Netanyahu announced he would push the bill through to a full cabinet ballot, which has the authority to forward legislation to the Knesset plenum for a vote.

The justice minister defended her decision on Monday, saying that the previous version of the bill may contradict the Declaration of Independence, which already addresses Israel’s Jewish status.

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni seen in the Knesset on November 12, 2014. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni seen in the Knesset on November 12, 2014. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

“I liked it that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he was in favor of equality, but the bills of MK Ze’ev Elkin and the Jewish Home don’t include this, and therefore I postponed the debate,” Livni said. “We are not against the ‘Jewish state’ bill, but we are against legislation that harms the Declaration of Independence,” Livni said.

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