Amid coalition tensions, Netanyahu to present ‘Jewish state’ bill to cabinet Sunday

Livni warns that legislation could undermine Declaration of Independence; Lapid denies seeking alternative coalition; he and Liberman say they oppose new elections

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, November 16, 2014. (photo credit: Amit Shabi/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, November 16, 2014. (photo credit: Amit Shabi/POOL)

Amid open rifts in the coalition and growing talk of elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would bring a controversial bill that would enshrine Israel’s Jewish status in its constitutional laws to a full cabinet vote on Sunday, even as Justice Minister Tzipi Livni criticized the proposed legislation.

Netanyau spoke as rumors flashed through Israeli political circles Monday afternoon intimating that the prime minister was contemplating seeking to muster an alternative coalition or move toward early elections, and as Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid played down reports that one of his advisers had been seeking to construct a new government headed by Lapid and without Netanyahu.

Seeking to quell rumors of imminent elections or dramatic coalition changes, both Finance Minister Lapid and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman stressed that they were opposed to holding elections in the near future. And by evening Livni was reported by Channel 2 to be working on a own draft of the “Jewish state” bill that could be acceptable to all coalition parties.

“On Sunday, we will bring to the cabinet the ‘Jewish state’ bill in response to those who are skeptical about the right of the Jews to their nation-state,” Netanyahu said at a Likud faction meeting. “In the State of Israel, every citizen has rights, regardless of religion, race, and gender, which are anchored in law. The issue of a Jewish and democratic state is not anchored; therefore we will insist that the law passes.”

The contentious bill was meant to be put to a ministerial vote on Sunday, but it was postponed by Livni by a week. Shortly afterward, outflanking Livni, Netanyahu announced he would push the bill through to a full government cabinet ballot, which has the authority to forward legislation to the Knesset plenum for a vote.

The justice minister defended her decision on Monday, saying that the current version of the bill may contradict the Declaration of Independence, which already addresses Israel’s Jewish status.

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni seen in the Knesset on November 12, 2014. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni seen in the Knesset on November 12, 2014. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

“I liked it that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he was in favor of equality, but the bills of MK Ze’ev Elkin and the Jewish Home don’t include this, and therefore I postponed the debate,” Livni said. “We are not against the ‘Jewish state’ bill, but we are against legislation that harms the Declaration of Independence,” Livni said.

The proposal currently on the table is one of several different bills seeking to define Israel as a Jewish state that have been circling in the Knesset in recent years — none of which have made much progress in the plenum — and is considered to present the most extreme version of such a law.

The bill seeks to anchor in law Israel’s definition as a Jewish state in the country’s Basic Laws. The version that was to be discussed by ministers Sunday, before the justice minister postponed it, also reportedly defines Israel’s democracy as subservient to its Jewish character and demotes Arabic from its status as an official language.

According to a document procured by the Ynet news website, Livni is set to present her own version of the bill, which differs from the current version on several issues. According to the report, the Elkin bill presents Israel’s Jewish and democratic status in separate clauses, while Livni links the two. Her bill is also said to explicitly defend the rights of non-Jewish minorities in Israel, and does not demote Arabic from it current status as an official language. However, whereas Elkin’s bill calls on the judicial system to utilize Jewish law “as a source of inspiration,” and enshrines its national anthem and holidays in the Basic Laws, Livni’s does not.

Netanyahu on Sunday offered his support for the bill, though he said revisions would need to be made before the proposed legislation fulfilled its goal of lending “balance” to the judicial system.

The spat between Netanyahu and Livni has been one of a series of public arguments imperiling the current coalition.

Earlier Monday, Netanyahu called, and later canceled, a Likud meeting which a source close to the prime minister said came in the wake of reports that Lapid, the Yesh Atid party head, had been trying to form an alternative coalition with Haredi lawmakers.

Lapid has been trying to push through a controversial tax-free home purchase bill, which his party defines as a make-or-break move for their continued participation in the coalition. That effort took a hit when Liberman pushed off a committee vote Monday, opening another fissure in the ruling coalition.

Lapid, who on Sunday night gave a conciliatory interview on Channel 2 in which he brushed aside reports that one of his advisers had been working to assemble an alternative coalition, again denied rumors to that effect on Monday, and said he was not seeking to bring down the government, while Liberman said he would not recommend elections at this time.

“This is not the time for elections or coalition exercises,” Lapid said. “I am not establishing any alternative government. The public expects responsibility from us, and this is not the time for political interest.”

Speaking at a Yisrael Beytenu faction meeting Monday, Liberman urged the coalition to resolve the disagreements and tone down the angry rhetoric.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman. (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman. (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“At the moment, in the face of the security and economic challenges, I would not recommend throwing the state into elections,” he said.

“We hope the coalition and the prime minister will work it out, will find a compromise, because right now the escalation in the statements adds nothing,” Liberman added.

While senior ministers sought to downplay the tensions, opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Labor) called on the public Monday to “topple and replace Netanyahu’s government,” pointing to the quarterly economic decline to back up his statement.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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