Proposed legislation that would enshrine in law Israel’s identity as a Jewish state is unnecessary and casts doubt on the state’s Jewish character, President Reuven Rivlin said Tuesday, registering for the first time his opposition to the measure and taking a position diametrically opposed to that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Rather than the usual Knesset process of approval for the legislation, Rivlin also called for a national referendum on the bill, whose protagonists, led by Netanyahu, are seeking to create a constitutional “Basic Law” defining Israel’s identity as a Jewish state.
Insistently backed by Netanyahu, the measure has drawn fierce internal criticism, with ministers threatening to bolt the coalition. It also came under fire from the US State Department on Monday.
In an address at an Eilat conference, the president — who has no legislative powers — asked what the point of the law was.
“Does promoting this law, not in fact, question the success of the Zionist enterprise in which we are fortunate to live?” asked Rivlin, formerly a veteran Knesset member from Netanyahu’s own Likud party, who took over as state president from Shimon Peres in the summer.
The legislation has seen multiple versions, including from a number of hardliners, but is awaiting the drafting of a final cabinet-sponsored proposal that is to be presented in the Knesset next week.
The president decried the elevation of the state’s Jewish dimension over its democratic sensibilities proposed in some versions of the legislation, arguing that the two elements should remain equal, as in the Declaration of Independence, which also ensured the rights of its non-Jewish citizens.
Rivlin also said that a “full and comprehensive referendum” to weigh the legal repercussions of the bill would be in order for a change of this significance.
“Even if another law would eventually pass through the current Knesset, I am afraid that the atmosphere which led to the formation and proposal of this law will not quickly pass through either the Knesset of the Israeli public,” he said.
‘Judaism and democracy, democracy and Judaism, said as one utterance, are combined, and continue to be so. These are not merely words. This is the beating heart of the State of Israel’
— President Reuven Rivlin
The bill has yet to be presented to the Knesset, but a raft of clauses on which it is to based, approved by the cabinet Sunday, aim to put Israel’s democratic and Jewish natures on equal footing, while reserving the right of national determination within the state to “the Jewish people” alone.
The “hierarchical approach, which places Jewishness before democracy, misses the great significance of the Declaration of Independence, which combined the two elements together – without separating them,” Rivlin said.
“Judaism and democracy, democracy and Judaism, said as one utterance, are combined, and continue to be so. These are not merely words. This is the beating heart of the State of Israel. A state established on two solid foundations; nationhood on the one hand, and democracy on the other. The removal of one will bring the whole building down,” he said.
The president argued that the so-called “Jewish state” bill pits the two components at odds, rather than seeking a reconciliation. “Jewish is democratic and democracy is Jewish,” he reiterated.
“Our combined efforts must be invested not in drawing differences between Judaism and democracy, but in the mutual development and empowerment to be found where they meet,” he said.
In the speech, the president also called for a formal legal delineation of the judicial and legislative branches of government, outlining the roles and limitations of both.
Responding to both US and internal criticism on Tuesday, the prime minister had said the proposed legislation would not undercut Israel’s “vibrant” democracy.
“Israel is a democratic state, as it was and always will be,” Netanyahu said during a press conference with Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka in Jerusalem. “I don’t know a country that is more democratic, or a more vibrant democracy than Israel in the world, certainly not in our region. What is being challenged today is Israel’s existence as the nation-state of Jewish people, and therefore we will anchor in the law this national right of the Jewish people alongside a guarantee of individual rights for all its citizens.”
Coalition leaders decided on Monday to delay a preliminary vote on two drafts of the proposed bill by one week, as some ministers vowed to continue to oppose the measure even if it meant their jobs — and the future of the coalition.
Yisrael Beytenu MK Robert Ilatov initially proposed the week-long delay, which was backed by the Jewish Home party at a meeting of coalition leaders in the Knesset Monday.
The decision came just hours after Justice Minister Tzipi Livni reiterated her intention to fight the bill, and challenged the prime minister to decide whether he was willing to break up his coalition over the measure.
“This bill will not pass because we are not ready and I am not prepared to be a fig leaf for something so problematic,” Livni told the Ynet news site on Monday. “And if it goes [to a vote, as had originally been scheduled] on Wednesday, I will not let it pass and will not compromise regarding its wording.
“The prime minister will have to decide whether he will fire ministers in his government and topple his coalition over their opposition to a law that goes against a Jewish and democratic Israel,” she said. “If he wants elections over this, no problem.”
Lazar Berman and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.