Bennett rejects US comments on ‘Jewish state’ bill

Senior minister says contentious legislation is ‘an internal problem and I don’t think anyone has the right to wade into it’

Then-economy minister Naftali Bennett speaks at an economic conference, on September 2, 2014. (photo credit: Flash90)
Then-economy minister Naftali Bennett speaks at an economic conference, on September 2, 2014. (photo credit: Flash90)

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett of the right-wing Jewish Home party on Tuesday rejected perceived American criticism of a bill that would enshrine in law Israel’s status as a Jewish nation-state.

“I say to the Americans that we will manage the affairs of the State of Israel. We have to deal with the ramifications of what sort of state we want,” Bennett told Army Radio. “In the end, this is our problem, an internal problem, and I don’t think anyone has the right to wade into it.”

In a press briefing the day before, 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.”

The nation-state bill, which has seen multiple drafts but awaits the drafting of a final cabinet-sponsored proposal that is to be presented in the Knesset next week, would enshrine in a constitutional Basic Law Israel’s identity as a Jewish state.

The proposed Basic Law has practical ramifications, Bennett argued, “such as on the issue of infiltration [of African labor migrants and refugees], and on the issue of family unification [allowing West Bank Palestinians to obtain Israeli citizenship through Israeli relatives]. So the law is timely.”

The bill “is very late in coming,” he added. “Twenty years ago we had a constitutional revolution” in the form of the passage of two Basic Laws, one on “Human Dignity and Liberty” and the second on “Freedom of Vocation,” which “placed individual rights above the identity of Israel as the nation-state [of the Jewish people],” Bennett explained.

“This created an imbalance, and the [nation-state] Basic Law restores the balance according to which the State of Israel is a Jewish and democratic state. Today the fact that Israel is a Jewish state is not a constitutional value.”

And, he noted, the present government’s coalition agreement, which has the binding legal status of a contract, “says that we will pass a nation-state law. Did everyone think we would write this into the coalition agreement but then fail to pass it?”

The issue will have a dramatic effect on Israel’s future, Bennett said. “Do we want a massive entry of foreigners into the State of Israel?”

He added that the bill could forestall demands for national self-determination by Arabs in areas of the Galilee or Negev where they are a majority.

On Monday, the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman said in a statement that the debate over Israel’s Jewish and democratic character “undermined the settled nature of this essential element of Israel’s national identity. Attempts to further codify this concept in the Basic Laws are well-meaning but unnecessary. It is troubling that some have sought to use the political process to promote an extreme agenda which could be viewed as an attempt to subsume Israel’s democratic character in favor of its Jewish one.”

Prime Minister Benjamin 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.”

The bills originally slated for the Wednesday vote will not become law, as the cabinet voted on Sunday to incorporate them into a future government bill after they pass the preliminary vote. In essence, the different versions were slated to receive the Knesset’s initial nod, and then be replaced by an agreed-upon government version drafted by the prime minister and Attorney General Yehudah Weinstein.

On Sunday, cabinet ministers approved a two-page document containing 14 principles that a future government bill will be based on. While guaranteeing Israel’s democratic character, the bill, a softened version of the other proposals, would reserve the right of national self-determination within the boundaries of the state of Israel to Jews alone.

Haviv Rettig Gur and Spencer Ho contributed to this report.

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