Netanyahu calls for expediting controversial Jewish state bill
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Netanyahu calls for expediting controversial Jewish state bill

PM raises possibility of pushing Likud MK Dichter's version of the legislation, rather than waiting for government to formulate its own draft

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Head of the Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee MK Avi Dichter in the Knesset, March 8, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Head of the Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee MK Avi Dichter in the Knesset, March 8, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday he intends to fast-track a controversial bill that would enshrine Israel’s status as a Jewish nation-state in its Basic Laws.

At the weekly meeting of coalition leaders, the prime minister raised the possibility of backing the legislation as a private, rather than a government, proposal in an apparent effort to ensure the bill is not stalled by coalition disagreements.

Last Sunday, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation gave the go-ahead to advance Likud MK Avi Dichter’s version of the legislation, committing itself to forming a government committee that would present to the Knesset a version of the bill within two months.

Dichter, however, also presented the proposal as a private members’ bill in order for it to progress through the Knesset, albeit at a slower pace, and independent of a government decision. The bill passed a preliminary plenary vote on Wednesday.

Netanyahu, who promised last week that the bill would be brought to the Knesset within 60 days, told ministers Sunday that he is keeping open the option of supporting the bill without waiting for full coalition input on the text.

The prime minister also asserted that despite recent coalition strains, such as those over the new broadcast authority, “the current government will hold out until November 2019.”

Speaking to The Times of Israel, coalition chair Likud MK David Bitan — while not commenting on whether the bill would receive full coalition support — would not rule out advancing Dichter’s bill as soon as this week.

That step would require convening the Knesset’s Law and Justice Committee, which has been tasked with reviewing and tailoring the bill ahead of its first reading.

A senior coalition source said that “if there isn’t agreement on the government bill Netanyahu will put his support behind the private bill,” while a spokesperson for Dichter said the lawmaker “has been in extensive coordination with the prime minister.”

Within the coalition, the main hurdle for Netanyahu will be the center-right Kulanu party, which has expressed some reservations about the proposal.

While the Kulanu coalition party voted in favor in the ministerial committee decision, party spokesman Omri Arush told The Times of Israel last week that its lawmakers would only support the final government proposal if it “met the standards they required.” According to Arush, who declined to elaborate on what those standards were, Kulanu did not give the proposal a blank check and would have input into the final version.

Arush said Sunday “there is no change from last week.”

“Kulanu will work with coalition parties on the government bill. We are not aware of a change although other options are possible,” he added.

Israel’s national identity is mentioned in a number of the country’s laws, but the 11 existing Basic Laws deal mostly with state institutions and Israel’s democratic character. The nation-state bill, proponents say, would put Jewish values and democratic values on equal footing. Critics, however, say the bill effectively discriminates against Israel’s Arab and other minority communities.

The Yesh Atid and Zionist Union opposition parties on Wednesday voted against the bill. Both parties have said they would support a different version of the bill — formulated by Likud MK Benny Begin — which is simply a paragraph-long affirmation that Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people.

File: Likud MK Benny Begin during a Likud party meeting at the Knesset, May 25, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
File: Likud MK Benny Begin during a Likud party meeting at the Knesset, May 25, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to the language of Dichter’s bill, the law is needed “to protect the status of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people in order to anchor in Israel’s Basic Laws the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.”

The proposal also enshrines Israel’s state symbols and anthem in law, says the Hebrew calendar is the official one, affirms protection of all holy sites, and calls on courts to draw from Jewish law in cases where the existing Israeli legislation falls short.

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