Begin breaks ranks to oppose Jewish nation-state bill
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Begin breaks ranks to oppose Jewish nation-state bill

Legislation must openly say it will safeguard the rights of minorities, insists maverick Likud lawmaker

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Likud MK Benny Begin speaks during a vote on the so-called Regulation Bill, controversial legislation that seeks to legitimize illegal West Bank outposts, in the Knesset on December 7, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Likud MK Benny Begin speaks during a vote on the so-called Regulation Bill, controversial legislation that seeks to legitimize illegal West Bank outposts, in the Knesset on December 7, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Maverick Likud MK Benny Begin slammed the coalition on Wednesday for supporting his fellow party member Avi Dichter’s Jewish nation-state bill, while lamenting the proposed legislation’s disregard for Israel’s non-Jewish minorities.

Decrying the lack of explicit mention of equal rights for all in the proposal, Begin told the Knesset plenum he will oppose the legislation when it comes to a first reading vote, likely in the winter.

He spoke in the Knesset plenum on the last day of the session before the parliament’s three-month summer break.

“I don’t support it and I won’t support it in the way it was submitted,” Begin said, hours after the first committee debates on the bill kicked off in the Knesset.

“There cannot be any conflict between nation-state, nationalism and equal rights,” Begin added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Likud MK Avi Dichter (R) attend a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting on March 8, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Likud MK Avi Dichter (R) attend a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting on March 8, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Begin, who has drafted his own version of the bill, said his Jewish nation-state proposal could have earned the support of 90 of the 120 Knesset members.

Both the opposition Yesh Atid and Zionist Union parties have said they would support Begin’s version, which is a concise affirmation that Israel is the Jewish nation-state that upholds the rights of all of its citizens.

Begin said it would be insufficient to simply revise Dichter’s bill to read that Israel is a “Jewish and democratic state,” as suggested by some coalition lawmakers, but rather must openly specify Israel will safeguard the rights of minorities.

“My dear friends in the coalition, the word ‘democracy’ must include substance,” he said.

Upon concluding his speech, Begin was surrounded by opposition lawmakers in the plenum, who shook his hand.

The maverick Likud lawmaker, son of prime minister Menachem Begin, also voted against the so-called Regulation Bill to legalize outposts, despite the coalition’s support for the law.

Dichter’s Jewish State bill, for the first time in Israeli law, would enshrine Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people.” If passed, the law would become one of the so-called Basic Laws, which like a constitution guides Israel’s legal system and are more difficult to repeal than regular laws.

The bill was approved in its preliminary reading in May.

Judaism is already mentioned throughout the country’s laws, and religious authorities control many aspects of life, including marriage. But the 11 existing Basic Laws deal mostly with state institutions like the Knesset, the courts or the presidency, while Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty defines Israel’s democratic character. The nation-state bill, proponents say, would put Jewish values and democratic values on equal footing.

Critics have said that the bill is discriminatory to Israel’s Arab and other minority populations.

According to the language of the government-backed proposal, while every individual has the right “to preserve his or her culture, heritage, language and identity,” the right to realize self-determination “is unique to the Jewish people.”

In another controversial clause, Arabic would be relegated from an official language to one with “special status,” which would ensure its speakers the “right to accessible state services.”

The bill was first put forward by Dichter in 2014 but, facing criticism from both opposition members and liberal-minded members of his own Likud party, it was shelved soon after. Since then, a number of versions of the legislation have been drafted by right-wing lawmakers but none has made it through the Knesset to become law.

Dichter, a former chief of the Shin Bet security agency, has lamented the “disinformation” about the bill, denying the bill downgrades the status of Arabic in Israel as an official language. He also dismissed claims the law compromises the rights of Israel’s Arab minority, saying it merely anchors Israel’s Jewish status while protecting the rights of other groups.

Another clause that has been the subject of scrutiny is one that appears to suggest the High Court of Justice favor Israel’s Jewish character over its democratic one. The attorney general has opposed this clause, according to Hebrew reports this month.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has thrown his support behind Dichter’s bill. However, while the prime minister had initially predicted the bill would pass its three readings and become law by the Knesset session’s end this week, the committee only began deliberations on Wednesday, pushing off the first reading for at least three more months when the Knesset reconvenes in late October.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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