Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday defended a controversial bill enshrining Israel as the Jewish nation-state, attacking critics of the legislation by pointing out that they want a bi-national Israel next to a Palestinian state rid of its Jewish population.
Speaking at a special Knesset session called to discuss the cost of living, but which ended up discussing the bill, Netanyahu said the controversial bill was needed to correct the imbalance between Israel’s Jewish and democratic characteristics.
“The bill that I’ll bring [before the Knesset] will be based on the fact that the state of Israel is a Jewish and democratic state,” Netanyahu said. “These principles are intertwined and one doesn’t supersede the other. Israel guarantees equal rights for all its citizens, without discrimination against religion, race or sex.”
The prime minister spoke before a special Knesset session after 40 members of the parliament signed a petition calling upon Netanyahu to address the “Jewish state” bill the cabinet approved during its weekly meeting on Sunday. It is set to face its first Knesset reading on Wednesday, and its fate in that vote, should it go ahead, could affect the future of the coalition government. Coalition members Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Tzipi Livni (Hatnua) have indicated varying degrees of opposition to the bill, and it is not clear what stance they might take in a Knesset vote. Both party leaders were in the Knesset chamber to hear Netanyahu, though they spent part of his speech talking to each other.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people and the Jewish people alone,” Netanyahu said, with rights for its non-Jewish minority. He added, however, that critics of his bill want a Palestinian national state which would be empty of Jews, but that Israel should be a bi-national state.
He outlined the general principles of his draft of the “Jewish state” bill, echoing elements of Israel’s Declaration of Independence and Basic Laws: “The land of Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people and the site of the state of Israel’s establishment. The state of Israel is the national homeland of the Jewish people and it embodies the right of self-determination. The right to exercise self-determination in the state of Israel is exclusive to the Jewish people. The state of Israel is a democratic state, and it executes the rights of all of its citizens according to the law.”
Netanyahu’s speech was punctuated by raucous objections by opposition MKs, several of whom were ordered out of the chamber for repeated heckling, but the prime minister was undeterred in emphasizing that he is determined to advance the bill in order to ensure the Jewish people’s presence in the Land of Israel. He retorted to one Arab Knesset member that “you don’t recognize a millimeter of our rights to the Galilee and the Negev.” And he asserted that there were those “at home and abroad… NGOs and states… that reject the right of the Jewish people to the Jewish state” and this had to be confronted.
He said “I understand why Hamas doesn’t want” to come to terms with Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, but “I don’t understand why some of my best friends [in the Knesset] don’t want it.”
The bill, he also said, would help stem illegal immigration into Israel and prevent Palestinian refugees from returning to Israel under the rubric of family reunification.
Netanyahu said the bill would address an imbalance by which the state’s democratic nature sometimes superseded its Jewish one. Early versions of the bill had put the country’s Jewish nature as primary, but Netanyahu has said the text he will bring forward will put the two on equal footing.
The prime minister also said he’d advance stringent measures to strip of their rights Israeli citizens involved in terrorist activity or incitement to violence.
“Whoever glorifies murderers, whoever calls them martyrs, whoever advocates continuing in their path, won’t have national insurance,” he said.
“Whoever acts toward the destruction of the State of Israel won’t enjoy national insurance or any of these social rights. There’s nothing more absurd than this. This absurdity we will eliminate.”
He dismissed his critics as focusing entirely on his refusal to withdraw unilaterally from West Bank settlements, and not recognizing his accomplishments as prime minister for a total of nine years.
“With you it was: ‘If you didn’t evacuate [settlements], you didn’t do anything,'” he said, over and over again, while touting his economic reforms, hardline stance against Iran, development and deployment of Iron Dome and military accomplishments against Hamas, and infrastructure projects connecting the Negev and Galilee to central Israel as examples of deeds unappreciated by the opposition.
He repeated the manta, “With you it was: ‘If you didn’t evacuate [settlements], you didn’t do anything,'” time after time — underlining the sense that this was a speech delivered amid the growing possibility of imminent elections.
His critics, he said, advocated irresponsible territorial withdrawal to appease the Palestinians — “jumping off a cliff,” as he put it, in the erroneous belief that Israel would have a soft landing. Instead, waiting at the bottom of the cliff “are the Islamic State terror group and Hamas,” he said.
“I didn’t evacuate [settlements], but I did a lot, and will continue to do a lot for the State of Israel and its citizens, the state of the Jewish people,” Netanyahu said.
‘What dybbuk has taken hold of you?’
Speaking immediately after the prime minister, opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Labor) warned that the world is baffled by Netanyahu’s pursuit of the “Jewish state” measure.
“There is hardly a single media body in the Western world that is not following with concern after the dybbuk that has taken hold of you, prime minister,” Herzog said, using the Yiddish term for demon. “You, and us, are demanding from the world, and especially the enlightened [world], to see in us a developed and advanced Western democracy. It seems that once again you aren’t demanding from yourself what you demand from our friends, and our allies around the world.” Herzog quoted a Times of London front-age headline that asserted this week that Israel is set to turn its arab residents into “second class” citizens.
Herzog charged that Netanyahu had raised the nation-state bill in a bid to bolster his political standing with the right.
“Only a prime minister who lacks confidence, without vision and without a plan, needs to verbally split hairs as in the nation-state law to justify the obvious,” the Labor leader said. “The direct result of advancing this unnecessary law is not reinforcing the state, rather the danger of it being lost as a democratic and equal state.”
“Anyone who has eyes in his head asks himself every morning what punch Netanyahu and his pals will throw at the public interest today,” Herzog taunted.
The Labor leader also responded directly to Netanyahu’s “I didn’t evacuate” taunt. The prime minister “did evacuate” — he evacuated the refrigerators of ordinary Israelis, said Herzog, a reference to economic inequality and the rising cost of living in Israel.