EU urges Israel to uphold democracy in ‘Jewish state’ bill

Senior source says Europe expects legislation to preserve Israel’s ‘longstanding commitment to basic democratic principles’

The European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium (photo credit: CC BY-SA stevecadman, Flickr)
The European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium (photo credit: CC BY-SA stevecadman, Flickr)

The government’s move to enshrine Israel’s status as the Jewish nation-state in the country’s constitutional laws must preserve its democratic standards, a senior source in the European Union told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.

The contentious “Jewish state” bill has seen multiple versions, including from a number of hardliners, but is awaiting the drafting of a final cabinet-sponsored proposal by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein.

“We have taken note of the pending legislation,” the EU source said. “We trust and expect that any bill would fully recognize and respect Israel’s longstanding commitment to basic democratic principles.”

Insistently backed by Netanyahu, the proposed legislation has drawn fierce internal criticism, with ministers threatening to bolt the coalition over it. On Tuesday, President Reuven Rivlin also voiced criticism of the measure.

The EU official’s comments echoed concerns about the bill voiced by the US State Department spokesman earlier this week. In a Monday press briefing, spokesman Jeff Rathke said that the US expects that Israel “continue [its] commitment to democratic principles.”

“The United States position, which is unchanged, has been clear for years – and the president and the secretary [of state] have also reiterated it – is that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state in which all citizens should enjoy equal rights.”

In an editorial Tuesday that called the advance of the bill in the Knesset “heartbreaking,” The New York Times suggested that Israel should heed the lessons of the denial of full rights to blacks in America.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence guarantees “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex,” the paper’s editors wrote. “That is why it is heartbreaking to see the Israeli cabinet approve a contentious bill that would officially define Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, reserving ‘national rights’ only for Jews.”

The American statement were promptly dismissed by Netanyahu, who maintained that Israel’s democracy would not be harmed by the legislation. Meanwhile, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett said that the US should avoid meddling in Israel’s internal affairs.

“Israel is a democratic state, as it was and always will be,” Netanyahu said. “I don’t know a country that is more democratic, or a more vibrant democracy than Israel in the world, certainly not in our region. What is being challenged today is Israel’s existence as the nation-state of Jewish people, and therefore we will anchor in the law this national right of the Jewish people alongside a guarantee of individual rights for all its citizens.”

An early draft of Netanyahu’s proposal for the bill asserts Israel’s Jewishness, reserving what the prime minister calls “national rights,” such as the flag, anthem and right to immigrate, for Jews alone. It would also undergird Israel’s democratic nature by vouchsafing equality for all its citizens, according to Netanyahu. Critics, among whom are Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, argue that as it stands, the bill would give preponderance to Israel’s Jewishness over its democratic nature, thus diminishing the status of Israel’s Arab citizens. They also argue that the bill is ill-timed in light of recent heightened Jewish-Arab strife in and around Jerusalem.

Lazar Berman and Adiv Sterman contributed to this report.

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