The European Union on Friday denied its ambassador to Israel used derogatory language to describe a controversial Knesset bill, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the envoy of meddling in Israel’s domestic affairs.
On Thursday evening, a diplomatic spat was sparked between Jerusalem and Brussels over a report that EU Ambassador Emanuele Giaufret told Likud lawmakers the government-sponsored so-called Jewish state bill “reeks of racism” and could harm the country’s international standing. The envoy was summoned to the Foreign Ministry on Friday morning as a result.
But the EU insisted on Friday that no derogatory language had been used in the envoy’s discussions of the issue.
“Across the world and as every diplomatic service, we engage with members from all parties in elected assemblies, including with MKs, to discuss a wide range of issues, including the legislative agenda,” a spokesperson for the EU’s mission in Tel Aviv told The Times of Israel on Friday. “We do sometimes share perceptions within the EU of policy and initiatives of our partner country. This is an important part of our diplomatic work.”
The Jewish state bill, which critics charge legitimizes discrimination, “did come up occasionally as part of these regular discussions,” according to the EU spokesperson, but not as reported in the TV item. “How Israel chooses to define itself is an internal issue for Israel to decide and we respect the internal debate which is ongoing. We value Israel’s commitment to the shared values of democracy and human rights, which has characterized our long-standing and fruitful relations,” the spokesperson continued.
“We in the EU would not want to see these values being put in question or even threatened. Democracy and equality, including equal rights for minorities, are key values that define our societies. The respect for human rights and fundamental principles are a key part of the EU-Israel partnership. We never used derogatory language in general and certainly not to define draft bills under discussion in the Knesset,” concluded the spokesperson.
On Thursday evening, minutes after the television report was aired on Hadashot TV news, Netanyahu, who is also the foreign minister, instructed the Foreign Ministry to summon Giaufret for a dressing down as well as to enact unspecified “additional measures.”
Giaufret appeared at the Foreign Ministry on Friday morning. Neither the ministry nor the EU embassy in Ramat Gan published any details about the meeting.
According to the Hadashot report, Giaufret recently told MKs that the bill, which has been criticized by some in Israel, including the president, as discriminatory, is “distancing Israel from the accepted norms of democratic countries,” the TV report said.
“The legislation reeks of racism, discriminates against groups, especially against Arabs, and harms the values that Israel is trying to uphold,” Giaufret said to one Likud MK, quoted in the report.
Within an hour, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement saying Giaufret would be summoned for a “dressing down” at the Foreign Ministry.
“The European Union not only funds nonprofits that fight against the State of Israel and fund illegal [Palestinian] building, now they are also getting involved in Israel legislation,” the PMO statement read, referring to EU-financed projects for Palestinians in the West Bank that run afoul of Israeli building regulations. “Apparently, they haven’t understood that Israel is a sovereign country.”
Politicians, legal advisers and others have warned that the current version of the bill is problematic and could bring Israel opprobrium in the international arena.
One oft-criticized section of the Likud-sponsored legislation, which the government hopes to have approved by the end of the month, would allow the state to “authorize a community composed of people having the same faith and nationality to maintain the exclusive character of that community.”
That portion of the text, Clause 7B, is seen as allowing towns to exclude Arab citizens, or even other groups in Israeli society.
Earlier in the day, Netanyahu, who leads the Likud party, defended the bill by saying most Israelis want to preserve the Jewish identity of the country, and that “the majority rules.”
“In the Israeli democracy, we will continue to protect the rights of both the individual and the group — this is guaranteed. But the majority have rights too, and the majority rules,” he said at a memorial service for early Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky.
“The vast majority of people want to preserve the Jewish character of our country for generations to come,” he said. “This combination of individual rights and group rights are the definition of a Jewish and democratic state.”
The formulation of the bill has been a source of coalition wrangling for years, and has been cited as one of the causes of the previous government’s early collapse in 2014.
On Thursday evening, sources in the religious-nationalist Jewish Home party said it had reached an agreement with Likud on a formula for the bill that would declare that the Jewish people possess a “religious” right to self-determination in the Land of Israel.
The agreement was hammered out by Likud MK Amir Ohana, who is leading the committee preparing the bill, and the deputy chair of the Jewish Home party, MK Nissan Slomiansky.
“Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people in which it realizes its natural, cultural, historical and religious right to self-determination,” the proposed text reads.
Haaretz reported that the addition of the world “religious” to the sentence was agreed to by Ohana in return for removing a clause that Israeli courts should draw guidance from ancient Hebrew laws in cases where existing Israeli law falls short. Ohana, who is gay, was reportedly concerned that the original formula would affect LGBT rights, as Hebrew laws, based on biblical verses, tend to be conservative on gay rights.
If passed, the law would become one of the so-called Basic Laws, which, like a constitution, underpin Israel’s legal system and are more difficult to repeal than regular laws.
Judaism is already mentioned throughout the country’s laws, and religious authorities control many aspects of life, including marriage. But the 11 existing Basic Laws deal mostly with state institutions like the Knesset, the courts, and the presidency, while Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty defines Israel’s democratic character.
In addition to the clause on exclusive communities, the law has also come under fire for making Hebrew the exclusive official language in Israel. Arabic would be relegated from an official language to one with “special status,” which would ensure its speakers the “right to accessible state services.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.