Defending nation-state law, PM says Israeli Arabs have 22 other countries

Netanyahu brushes off criticism of controversial legislation, says individual rights anchored in preexisting laws

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a signing ceremony for an agreement to build new apartments in Jerusalem, on March 11, 2019. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a signing ceremony for an agreement to build new apartments in Jerusalem, on March 11, 2019. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to suggest Monday that Israel’s Arab citizens had more affiliation to other Arab states around the region than to Israel, responding to controversy over his claim a day earlier that Israel is not a country of all of its citizens but a Jewish state.

Netanyahu has come under harsh criticism amid accusations that he is using anti-Arab rhetoric as part of his election campaign. On Sunday, he responded to model Rotem Sela’s complaint over the issue by saying that a nation-state law passed last year enshrined Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people alone.”

“The Arab citizens have 22 nation states around them and they do not need another. We define Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, the nation-state of the Jewish people, with equal rights for all,” he said on party webcast Likud TV when asked about how the controversial law impacts Arab Israeli and Druze citizens of Israel.

Netanyahu said Monday that the legislation “does not relate to the rights of the individual, because there are equal rights for all. The Basic Law deals only with fundamental questions of the rights of the Jewish people, a blue-and-white flag, the Hatikva [national anthem] and so on.”

The claim that there are 22 other Arab states is often used by right-wing Israelis as an argument against Palestinian statehood, but is not generally used as an argument regarding the country’s Arab citizens, who make up almost a quarter of the population.

The discussion over the Basic Law: Israel – the Nation State of the Jewish People, which passed in July, was rekindled over the weekend, after Sela, a popular television host, blasted Culture Minister Miri Regev (Likud) for claiming that Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid’s Blue and White party wants to establish a government with the help of Arab parties.

TV host, model and actress Rotem Sela. (CC-BY-SA-4.0 דבש סדן/Wikipedia)

“What is the problem with the Arabs???” Sela wrote on her Instagram account. “Dear God, there are also Arab citizens in this country. When the hell will someone in this government convey to the public that Israel is a state of all its citizens and that all people were created equal, and that even the Arabs and the Druze and the LGBTs and — shock — the leftists are human.”

Netanyahu unexpectedly responded to her post with “an important correction,” saying that Israel “is not a state of all its citizens” but the nation-state of the Jewish people only.

At Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu brought up the issue once more.

“I would like to clarify a point that, apparently, is not clear to slightly confused people in the Israeli public. Israel is a Jewish, democratic state. What this means is that it is the nation-state of the Jewish people alone,” he declared. “Of course it respects the individual rights of all its citizens – Jews and non-Jews alike. But it is the nation-state, not of all its citizens, but only of the Jewish people.”

Non-Jews have “national representation” in other states, he went on. “The national representation of the Jewish people is in the State of Israel. Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people and of it alone.”

The frequent claims that the center-left wants to co-opt the Arab parties into their government has also been criticized by the US-based Anti-Defamation League.

“The role of Arab parties in the Israeli Knesset is increasingly emerging as a key wedge of the current election campaign, with several party leaders and politicians vowing not to include them in any future coalition, while accusing their political foes of a willingness to do so,” said Carole Nuriel, who heads the ADL’s Israel office.

President Reuven Rivlin on Monday appeared to launch a harsh attack on Netanyahu over his comments about Arab Israelis, saying that all citizens enjoy full equality before the law. Said Rivlin: “There are no, and there will be no, second-class citizens.”

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