PM: ‘Jewish Israel’ law vital to counter assault on legitimacy

Netanyahu tells cabinet his Basic Law proposal, enshrining Israel as Jewish people’s nation-state, will define Jewish rights without harming individuals

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Benjamin Netanyahu, center, speaking at the start of the cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on May 4, 2014. (Emil Salman/POOL/FLASH90)
Benjamin Netanyahu, center, speaking at the start of the cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on May 4, 2014. (Emil Salman/POOL/FLASH90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated his promise on Sunday to advance a constitutional Basic Law expressly identifying Israel as a Jewish nation-state.

Speaking at the start of his weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu rebuffed criticism of the plan, saying the state currently lacked “adequate expression” of Israel’s “existence as the nation-state of the Jewish people” in the country’s set of Basic Laws.

“It will define the national right of the Jewish people to the State of Israel, and will do so without harming the individual rights of all Israeli citizens in the State of Israel,” he said. “It will fortify the Law of Return as a Basic Law. It will anchor in Basic Laws the status of the national symbols – the flag, the anthem, the language and other components of our national existence.”

Explaining the immediate trigger for the bill, Netanyahu said Israel’s Jewish status is under “constant and increasing assault from the outside, and even from within.”

Israel does not have a constitution, but the country’s set of Basic Laws have been given the standing of one by the courts.

As he did when announcing the legislative campaign Thursday, Netanyahu tied the new bill to the Israeli demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish nation-state.

“There are of course those who do not want the State of Israel to be defined as the nation-state of the Jewish people,” he told the cabinet ministers. “They want to establish a Palestinian nation-state next to us, and that Israel slowly transform into a binational Arab-Jewish state in its shrunken borders.

“The State of Israel grants equal rights, full individual rights, to all its citizens. But it is the nation-state of one nation only – the Jewish nation – and not of any other nation. Therefore, in order to fortify Israel’s status as the nation-state of the Jewish people I intend to lead the legislation of a Basic Law that will anchor this status,” he said.

Netanyahu first proposed the new initiative at a Thursday press event in Tel Aviv. His announcement immediately sparked debate between the right-wing and center-left elements of his coalition on balancing the Jewish identification of the state with the country’s democratic constitutional commitments. Netanyahu signaled on Sunday that he welcomed the debate, and that all sides would be heard.

“The new law will be drafted in a dialogue with all elements of the coalition, so that it protects the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” he said.

Jerusalem’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state had been one of the major sticking points in the recently ended round of peace negotiations, with Netanyahu saying he will never sign an agreement without it and the Palestinians refusing adamantly.

Even outside the framework of peace negotiations, Netanyahu’s plan is likely to cause controversy, as some 20 percent of Israel’s population is not Jewish.

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.

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