Activists wave Declaration of Independence in stormy Knesset nation-state debate
At special session called by opposition over controversial law, its leader Tzipi Livni slams coalition, calls for early elections and 'covenant of equals' with Israel's minorities
Zionist Union activists waved copies of Israel’s Declaration of Independence in the Knesset plenum Wednesday during a special debate on the nation-state law.
Opposition leader MK Tzipi Livni delivered the main address at the gathering, which was called after the opposition obtained the requisite 25 MKs’ signatures for holding a special plenum debate during the summer recess.
In her speech, Livni railed against the right-wing government, called for early elections and said the opposition would pass the Declaration of Independence as a basic law in lieu of the nation-state law passed by the right-wing coalition on July 19.
Castigating the prime minister for failing to include a commitment to equality for all Israeli citizens in the nation-state law, Livni stormed: “What the hell has Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got against the Declaration of Independence?”, which includes a specific commitment to full equality.
“We’re the side that believes in a covenant of equals,” she said. “Every citizen of Israel has equal rights.”
“We commit to bringing the principles of the Declaration of Independence back into our lives. That’s our commitment, and we will fight for it until we win the elections. Your time is over,” she said to leaders of the right-wing coalition — who were not present in the plenum.
As she spoke, a group of activists from the Zionist Union faction raised copies of Israel’s Declaration of Independence in the visitors’ gallery.
They were quickly rushed out of the hall by Knesset ushers and security, as the waving of objects in the plenum is expressly forbidden in the parliament’s bylaws.
Still speaking at the podium, Livni accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of attempting to “dissolve the bonds between us [Jews and minorities] with his acid.”
The special recess session was convened despite MKs’ failing to obtain the 40 signatures required to force Netanyahu to attend.
The opposition’s request gave the debate subject as “The nation-state law and the harm it does to the values of equality and democracy.”
The nation-state law passed by the Knesset on July 19 as one of the country’s basic laws enshrines Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people,” but critics say it undermines Israel’s commitment to equality for all its citizens.
Members of Israel’s Druze community, who serve in the Israeli army, have expressed particular outrage at the law’s provisions, saying it renders them second-class citizens.
An estimated 50,000-plus people, waving Israeli and Druze flags and calling for equality, gathered at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on Saturday night to demonstrate against the bill.
The Netanyahu government says the new nation-state law merely reiterates the country’s national identity, while Israel’s democratic character and provisions for equality are anchored in existing legislation, including the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. It has resisted calls to amend or scrap the law and instead has committed to passing new legislation meant to address the concerns of the Druze.
The Knesset debate also comes two days after the first meeting of a cabinet committee established to deal with Druze and Circassian objections to the nation-state law, which met on Monday and immediately drew criticism from its own chairman, Netanyahu, when six of its eleven member ministers failed to show up.
Netanyahu demanded that the six explain their absence and said he would not allow absences at the next meeting of the committee in a week.
During the meeting it was agreed that legislation will be advanced despite the summer recess to clarify and anchor in law the equal status of minorities, and that it will passed into law during the winter session that begins in October. The planned legislation will also grant benefits to minority community members who serve in the armed forces or other forms of national service.
“It is important to make the right decisions, and not reckless ones,” Netanyahu told the ministers who did show up. “We worked on the Jewish nation-state law for eight years. I am not saying that we will work on this for another eight years, but it will also not be eight days.”
Attending the meeting alongside Netanyahu were Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, Communications Minister Ayoub Kara, Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel, and Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel.
Netanyahu told the committee that he wants explanations from Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, Construction Minister Yoav Gallant, Regional Cooperation Minister Tzahi Hanegbi, and Culture Minister Miri Regev as to why they did not attend.
Liberman and Kahlon sent their deputies, while Gallant sent the director general of his ministry, the Hebrew-language Haaretz newspaper reported. Hanegbi is in Colombia, representing Netanyahu on a state visit.
Netanyahu also said he will demand that everyone attend the next meeting — to be held next week — and bring with them short-term solutions to the concerns raised following the passage of the nation-state law, as well as long-term solutions for dealing with the difficulties facing the Druze and other minorities in Israeli society.