Attorney general seeks government-sponsored ‘Jewish state’ bill

Weinstein warns that ‘softened’ bill to be put by PM to cabinet on Sunday includes ‘significant changes’ in Israel’s democratic character

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Former Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Former Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein (Photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein said that a proposed law which seeks to enshrine Israel’s Jewish character needs to be put forward as a government bill, which would force it to undergo more serious scrutiny, Israel Radio reported Friday.

Weinstein’s push for a government-sponsored draft of the legislation came as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was expected to put forward a “softened” version of such a bill to the cabinet at Sunday’s weekly meeting. The new draft would apparently seek to define Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state, which upholds the rights of all its citizens under law,” though the wording is still being finalized.

“It’s very problematic to me that the government supports [private members’ bill] proposals which raise serious problems,” Weinstein wrote in a legal opinion published by the Walla news site. He said that in the proposed bills that have been drafted thus far, including one to be put forward by Netanyahu, there are “significant changes in the founding principles of constitutional law as anchored in the Declaration of Independence and in the basic laws of the Knesset, which can flatten the democratic character of the state.”

Netanyahu’s favored draft is apparently aimed to give equal weight to the principles of Israel as a democracy and as a Jewish state, but in versions that have been leaked to the media, it does so in separate sentences. “The right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people,” it specifies. “The State of Israel is a democratic state, founded on the principles of freedom, justice and peace, in accordance with the vision of Israel’s prophets, and upholds the individual rights of all of its citizens according to the law.”

This wording is intended by Netanyahu, among other implications, to make plain that Israel is not obligated to extend national rights to its minorities, the Yedioth Ahronoth daily reported on Thursday. Nonetheless, it said that the legislation department of the Justice Ministry considers the Netanyahu draft to adequately represent the necessary principle of equality, and quoted a legal opinion prepared by the department to this effect: “A correct legal reading of the wording shows that equality is included among the principles that form the basis” of the proposed legislation.

An earlier version of the bill was criticized by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who also postponed the vote this past Sunday to next week. Netanyahu had offered his support in principle for this earlier draft of 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.

Tzipi Livni on November 2, 2014. (photo credit: Alex Kolomoisky/Flash90/pool)
Tzipi Livni on November 2, 2014. (photo credit: Alex Kolomoisky/Flash90/pool)

MKs Ze’ev Elkin — the coalition chairman who initiated the version of the bill that prompted Sunday’s ministerial dispute — Yariv Levin, and Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home), have all agreed to the new wording, Israel Radio reported on Wednesday.

At a Likud faction meeting Monday, Netanyahu said the bill was a “response to those who are skeptical about the right of the Jews to their nation-state. 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 Elkin version 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 previous version of the bill may contradict the Declaration of Independence, which already addresses Israel’s Jewish status.

“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.

MK Ze'ev Elkin (photo credit: AP/Dan Balilty)
MK Ze’ev Elkin (photo credit: AP/Dan Balilty)

The Elkin proposal on the table was 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 has made much progress in the plenum — and was considered to present the most extreme version of such a law.

The bill seeks to anchor Israel’s definition as a Jewish state in the country’s Basic Laws. The Elkin version reportedly defined Israel’s democracy as subservient to its Jewish character and demoted Arabic from its status as an official language.

Livni and others objected to those two clauses and, according to a document procured by the Ynet news website, has prepared her own version of the bill. According to the report, the Elkin bill presented Israel’s Jewish and democratic status in separate clauses, while Livni’s draft 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. And 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.

If, as has been reported in some Hebrew media, Livni may now back Netanyahu’s draft, her version could be shelved. However, Livni has not confirmed that she’ll back Netanyahu’s version and nor has Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid.

After Sunday, when the aborted cabinet debate on the bill prompted ministerial dispute, rumors flashed through Israeli political circles intimating that the prime minister was contemplating seeking to muster an alternative coalition or move toward early elections. And Lapid on Monday played down but did not deny 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 later Monday that they were opposed to holding elections in the near future. And by evening Livni was reported by Channel 2 to be working on her draft of the “Jewish state” bill that could be acceptable to all coalition parties. Then, on Wednesday, came news of Netanyahu’s version.

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