Citing minority rights, Liberman opposes Jewish state bill

Citing minority rights, Liberman opposes Jewish state bill

Defense minister warns bill is an attempt to make Israel a state of halacha, or Jewish law

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman leads the Yisrael Beytenu party faction meeting at the Knesset on October 30, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman leads the Yisrael Beytenu party faction meeting at the Knesset on October 30, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Breaking ranks with the coalition, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Monday voiced objections to the so-called Jewish state law, arguing it could compromise the standing and rights of Israel’s non-Jewish minorities and turn Israel into a theocracy.

Speaking during the weekly Yisrael Beytenu party faction meeting, Liberman urged the government to drop the bill and formally enshrine the Declaration of Independence as one of Israel’s semi-constitutional Basic Laws instead.

Liberman said the bill, in its current form, is an attempt to transform Israel into a “halachic [Jewish law] state.” The Yisrael Beytenu party leader and strident critic of Israel’s Arab lawmakers also expressed concern over the bill’s ramifications for the rights of Israel’s non-Jewish minorities, “who fulfill all their obligations, including our friends, the Druze.”

“Our position is it’s better to take the Declaration of Independence, adopt it, legislate it as a [quasi-constitutional] basic law, and that will resolve all of our problems,” says Liberman, echoing a position held by some opposition parties, and similar proposals by Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni and maverick Likud MK Benny Begin. Those bills have been rejected by the coalition.

The Jewish state bill as spearheaded by Likud MK Avi Dichter is being revised in a special committee ahead of its first reading in the plenum, after being approved in its preliminary reading in May. Over the last Knesset session, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it emphatically clear that he was eager to see the law — which would for the first time enshrine Israel’s Jewish character in its constitutional Basic Laws — advanced as quickly as possible.

Head of the Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee Avi Dichter leads a meeting at the Knesset, July 11, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel’s national identity is mentioned in a number of the country’s laws, but the 11 existing Basic Laws deal mostly with state institutions and the state’s democratic character. The nation-state bill, proponents say, would put Jewish values and democratic values on equal footing. Critics, however, say the bill effectively discriminates against Israel’s Arab and other minority communities.

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.

Also Monday, Liberman came out against an attempt by the ultra-Orthodox parties to bypass the High Court of Justice with a law mandating Shabbat closures and said his party will vote against the bill during a Sunday meeting.

But he also stressed that tensions in the coalition over various pieces of legislation is “unnecessary” and the government is working efficiently nonetheless.

Describing the legislative fights as “landmines,” Liberman said the government can easily defuse the tensions.

“If we know how to act responsibly and lower the volume, we can dismantle the landmines relatively easily and there is no need for drama on live television,” he said.

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