The cabinet approved a controversial proposal Sunday to define Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people in a constitutional Basic Law.
The cabinet voted 14-6 to allow the government to draft a basic law that would formally define Israel as the Jewish national home.
The cabinet decision stipulated 14 “principles” that would guide the drafting of the new law. The final bill, which will be formally proposed in the Knesset by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, seeks to “define the identity of the State of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and to anchor the values of the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in the spirit of the principles of the Declaration of the Independence,” according to the cabinet decision.
The vote followed a stormy debate between ministers that more than once turned into a shouting match between Netanyahu and other ministers.
Voting against the proposal were the five cabinet ministers from the centrist Yesh Atid party — Finance Minister Yair Lapid, Education Minister Shai Piron, Science Minister Yaakov Peri, Health Minister Yael German, and Welfare Minister Meir Cohen — as well as Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnua).
The votes in favor included all Likud, Yisrael Beytenu and Jewish Home ministers, except for Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat (Likud), who was not present.
The new Basic Law would enshrine many of the defining characteristics of the Jewish state in a constitutional framework, asserting that “the right to express national self-determination within the State of Israel is [reserved] only to the Jewish people.”
According to Netanyahu, the law would also affirm Israel’s democratic nature, stipulating equality in civic and personal rights for all its citizens, including affirming a right to “the preservation of one’s culture, heritage, language and identity” for “every resident of Israel, irrespective of their religion, race or ethnicity,” in the words of the cabinet decision.
Israel “has equal individual rights for every citizen and we insist on this. But only the Jewish people have national rights: a flag, anthem, the right of every Jew to immigrate to the country, and other national symbols. These are granted only to our people, in its one and only state,” Netanyahu said at the start of the cabinet meeting.
“There are those who want the democratic (element) to take precedence over the Jewish, and there are those that want the Jewish (element) 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.
Lapid did not agree. “The nationality law being presented to the government is a bad law that was only drafted for the sake of Likud primaries,” the finance minister insisted. “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 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 Livni, blaming her refusal to advance a similar measure in the Minister Committee for Legislation last week for his decision to advance the measure in the cabinet.
“We wouldn’t have gotten here if Livni acted differently,” he said, according to Ynet.
Livni had agreed to draft an agreed-upon version of the bill in June, but a committee that was meant to meet to draft the bill has yet to meet, critics charge.
“If all of this was to get back at me — you won,” Livni shot back at Netanyahu. “Your speech this morning and the beautiful words about the Declaration of Independence, about Jabotinsky and equality, do not cover up the holes in [coalition chairman MK Ze’ev] Elkin’s bill, and that even his bill and your speech together don’t amount to anything substantial.”
The principles presented by Netanyahu Sunday will go toward the drafting of a softened version of previous bills by Elkin, MK Yariv Levin (Likud) and MK Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home) that seek to define Israel’s Jewish character.
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 in a raised voice, charging that Israeli Arabs “are creating a state within a state.”
The Netanyahu version is aimed at giving equal weight to the principles of Israel as a democracy and as a Jewish state, the Prime Minister’s Office said Sunday.
“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 cabinet-approved principles read.
Netanyahu made the changes in the bill with the reported agreement of Elkin, Shaked and Livni. But this was not confirmed by Livni, who had also reportedly been working on an alternative draft.
The prime minister lashed out at Livni and other ministers who threatened to 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.
Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein has indicated his opposition to the legislation in its current form. “It’s very problematic to me that the government supports [private members’] proposals which raise serious problems,” Weinstein wrote in a legal opinion published by the Walla news site last Thursday. He said that in the proposed bills that have been drafted thus far, including Netanyahu’s, 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.”
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.