Ministers argued furiously over a controversial bill Sunday that would define Israel as a Jewish state, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented a compromise version of the measure.
While the cabinet discussion over the bill was closed to the press, screaming from inside the Jerusalem conference room was loud enough for reporters in the hallway to hear much of the discussion.
The bill would enshrine in law Israel’s nature as a Jewish state, reserving what the prime minister called “national rights,” such as the flag and anthem and right to immigrate, for Jews alone. It would also underline Israel’s democratic nature, with equality for all its citizens, according to Netanyahu.
At the start of the meeting, Netanyahu told the cabinet that the measure he was proposing protects “equal individual rights” for all Israelis. “There are those who want the democratic (nature) to take precedence over the Jewish, and there are those that want the Jewish (character) to take precedence over the democratic. And the principle of the law that we are proposing here today — both of these values are equal and we must consider them equally,” he said, according to a statement from his office.
The measure was expected to pass the cabinet and move to the Knesset for a preliminary vote Wednesday, beginning a process that would likely see further bitter wrangling over its precise terms.
During the meeting, ministers made themselves loudly heard when debating the controversial proposal.
“The nationality law being presented to the government is a bad law that was only drafted for the needs of Likud primaries,” said Finance Minister Yair Lapid, of the centrist Yesh Atid party. “This is a law that [David] Ben-Gurion, [Ze’ev] Jabotinsky and [Menachem] Begin would oppose.” Added Lapid: “This morning I spoke with the family of Zidan Saif, [the Druze traffic policeman] who was killed protecting Jewish worshipers during the terror attack on the synagogue in Jerusalem. What can we say to this family? That he is a second class citizen?”
Netanyahu lashed out at Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, blaming her “flaccid” management for necessitating the cabinet vote. “We wouldn’t have gotten here if Livni acted differently,” he said, according to Ynet. Netanyahu had previously charged Livni, the dovish Hatnua party leader, with drafting the bill.
Science Minister Yaakov Peri spoke out against the timing of the proposed legislation. “I don’t understand the rush for the bill now in this sensitive time,” said the former Shin Bet head, a member of Yesh Atid.
Netanyahu reportedly responded by yelling that “they [Arabs] are creating a state within a state.”
Netanyahu has said the legislation is aimed at giving equal weight to the principles of Israel as a democracy and as a Jewish state. “The right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people,” Netanyahu’s version specifies, according a report in Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth last week. “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.”
The draft presented by Netanyahu Sunday was a softened version of an earlier bill, presented by coalition chairman MK Ze’ev Elkin, that sought to enshrine Israel’s Jewish status in its constitutional laws.
Netanyahu made the changes with the reported agreement of Elkin, MK Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home) and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. But Livni had not made clear in the run-up to the meeting whether she would back the Netanyahu draft.
The prime minister lashed out at Lapid, Livni and other ministers whose parties have intimated they might bolt the government over the proposal in past weeks.
“It is impossible to run the country this way,” he said. “We need to focus on strengthening security against threats by Islamic extremists and the dangers of Iran’s nuclear program, strengthening Israel’s economy and improving the welfare of its citizens — not making threats.”
The Elkin proposal 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 Elkin version reportedly defined Israel’s democracy as subservient to its Jewish character and demoted Arabic from its status as an official language.
The proposal was meant to be put to a ministerial vote last Sunday, but Livni postponed it 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, though with changes.
Turning his attention to the international community, Netanyahu in Sunday’s cabinet meeting criticized those who call for “two states for two peoples,” but oppose his “Jewish state” law.
“They rush to recognize a state of the Palestinian people, but they strongly oppose a state of the Jewish people,” he said, referring to countries that have voted to recognize the state of Palestine.