State of the nation-state law
Hebrew media review

State of the nation-state law

Israel’s governing coalition faces a major crisis over a bill to enshrine Israel as the national state of the Jewish people

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Photo credit: Flash90)
Finance Minister Yair Lapid with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Photo credit: Flash90)

Israel’s latest government crisis, surrounding a controversial bill that seeks to legislate the country’s Jewish character, dominates the headlines in Monday’s Hebrew press. The papers report that the cabinet approved legislation which would see Israel defined as a Jewish and democratic state. Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, heads of the Yesh Atid and Hatnua parties, respectively, voted against it, however, and said they’d do the same when it is put before the Knesset.

Haaretz lashes the cabinet for approving two drafts of “bills which subordinate the democratic identity of the state to its Jewish [one],” and for the government’s call for mandatory coalition support for the legislation. The paper reports that party representatives are currently trying to reach a compromise, and the vote slated for Wednesday may be pushed off in order to reach a more moderate version of the bill.

Israel Hayom immediately asks “Is Israel heading for elections?” following what all three papers describe as a “stormy” cabinet meeting. The paper reports that if the two senior ministers refuse to support the bill in the Knesset, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be forced to dismiss them.

“In a trap,” reads the headline on Yedioth Ahronoth‘s coverage of Sunday’s cabinet meeting. It quotes unnamed sources close to Livni and Lapid saying that Netanyahu intentionally caused this coalition crisis, and that the bill is a “political deal” cooked up by the prime minister and coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin “to deepen the rift in the coalition” despite efforts to reach a consensus on the bill’s wording.

The unnamed sources tell the paper that during Sunday’s cabinet meeting several Likud ministers turned to Netanyahu and asked him not to support Elkin’s radical bill. “But he decided apparently that this will be a good reason to break up the government, and he brought forward the version in which the Jewish state is supreme to the existence of the State of Israel [as a] democratic state.”

Despite her party leader’s opposition to the bill, Israel Hayom quotes Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie voicing support for it, saying “setting the Jewish identity in law is an important step which will perpetuate the fact that the State of Israel is the home of the Jewish people.” Whether or not the government reaches an agreement not to enforce coalition discipline in the Knesset vote, the first reading will be too close to call. According to Yedioth Ahronoth the bill is expected to have 43 MKs in favor, 25 from Yesh Atid and Hatnua either abstaining or opposing, 37 opposition MKs opposing, and 15 ultra-Orthodox MKs abstaining.

Yossi Sarid writes in Haaretz that the bill okayed Sunday by the cabinet “negates every national right and every community symbol of Israel’s Arab citizens, that annuls the status of Arabic as the state’s second official language, and above all, erases ‘equality.'”

The bill, if passed, will “change us while we sleep,” he charges. “When we wake up, we won’t recognize ourselves,” because the bill will have stripped Israel of its democratic character. He calls on members of Yesh Atid and Hatnua and the opposition to vote against the bill, saying “If you can’t beat him for now, at least don’t join him, lest you lose yourselves.”

Ben-Dror Yemini is equally vociferous in his castigation of the government’s support for the bill, saying it’s “the government against Israel.”

“What’s the point of this law? What profit will Israel gain by this?” he asks, pointing out that Israel’s Declaration of Independence, two of its Basic Laws, and some of its most important peace agreements all mention its Jewish and democratic nature. Speaking of Netanyahu without mentioning his name, Yemini writes that he who seeks such a bill “doesn’t intend to strengthen the recognition of Israel as the national state of the Jewish people. He intends something completely different.” He says Netanyahu is aware that there’s no need for such a bill, but posits that he might be doing it for political gain in the Likud primaries.

Either way, “this time the government of Israel, however sad, is launching a campaign against the State of Israel,” he writes.

Shlomo Cesana writes in Israel Hayom that the issue at hand is not the Jewish state law — which is liable to keep the coalition together or tear it apart — but the manner in which the coalition functions. The coalition, he writes, “is cracked, crumbling, standing once again in the face of storm, in what apparently is the most significant crisis it has dealt with politically until now.”

He lays the coalition’s fate at the feet of Lapid and Livni, saying “they’ll chose whether to topple the government, or to right it.” Should elections be called, however, he says neither of them will have much political capital to stand on.

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