Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to expanding criticism of the controversial “Jewish state” bill Tuesday, saying no country was more democratic than Israel.
The measure, which would enshrine in a constitutional “Basic Law” Israel’s identity as a Jewish state, has drawn internal criticism, with ministers threatening to bolt the coalition, and was also denounced by the US State Department and in a New York Times editorial.
The bill has seen multiple versions, including from a number of hard-liners, but is awaiting the drafting of a final cabinet-sponsored proposal that is to be presented in the Knesset next week.
“Israel is a democratic state, as it was and always will be,” said Netanyahu 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.”
In an editorial Tuesday that called the advance of a Jewish state bill in the Knesset “heartbreaking,” the New York Times suggested that Israel should heed the lessons of the denial of full rights to blacks in America.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence guarantees “’complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex,’” wrote the paper. “That is why it is heartbreaking to see the Israeli cabinet approve a contentious bill that would officially define Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, reserving ‘national rights’ only for Jews.
“This is not for us just a theoretical concern. The systematic denial of full rights to minorities — principally African-Americans and disproportionately in the American South — well into the 1960s caused great harm to our own country, is not fully resolved yet and is a remaining stain on American democracy.”
While noting that the proposal would likely undergo significant revisions before it reaches the Knesset plenum, the New York Times lamented the timing of bill, arguing that during a period of terrorist attacks and riots in Jerusalem, “any measure that claims a pre-eminent status for Jews can only add fuel to the fire.”
During a stormy cabinet session on Sunday, ministers approved a raft of measures from Netanyahu that would provide the basis for the bill.
One of Netanyahu’s amendments to the bill defines Israel as a “democratic state, established on the principle of freedom, justice, and peace in light of the vision of Israel’s prophets, which fulfills the personal rights of all of its citizens according to every law.”
In addition, the prime minister’s amendments define Israel as a country where only Jews “fulfill their right to self-determination.”
Instead of approving a bill, the cabinet decided that two existing drafts of the law would be combined, then subsumed and effectively replaced by a softened government bill to be drafted by Netanyahu and Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, which is slated to be presented to parliament next week.
In a Monday press briefing, State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said the US understood that the proposal was only at the “beginning of a process, and so I don’t want to speculate on the outcome,” but added that the US “would expect any final legislation to continue Israel’s commitment to democratic principles.”
He added: “The United States position, which is unchanged, has been clear for years – and the president and the secretary [of state] have also reiterated it – is that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state in which all citizens should enjoy equal rights.”
Netanyahu said Monday afternoon that he was determined to pass the bill, even without the backing of his entire cabinet.
“It is important to exhaust the channels of dialogue, and I am ready to give this dialogue a chance,” he said during the weekly Likud faction meeting. “I am determined to pass this bill with or without consensus. It is very important for securing the future of the nation of Israel, in the Land of Israel, in the State of Israel.
“The principles that I am advancing give expression to Israel being the national Jewish state, and only that, while protecting rights.”
Asked if elections were in the offing after coalition parties Hatnua and Yesh Atid expressed opposition to the proposal this week, Netanyahu said laconically, “Time will tell.”
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.”
Haviv Rettig Gur and Spencer Ho contributed to this report.