A diplomatic spat was sparked Thursday evening between Israel and the European Union over a report that the EU’s ambassador here told Likud lawmakers that a controversial government-sponsored bill “reeks of racism” and could harm the country’s international standing.
In response to the report, aired on Hadashot TV news, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also the foreign minister, instructed the Foreign Ministry to summon Ambassador Emanuele Giaufret for a dressing down as well as to enact unspecified “additional measures.”
Giaufret recently told MKs that the so-called Jewish State 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.”
The EU mission in Israel declined to comment on Giaufret’s reported comments, saying it “does not refer to private conversations.”
Politicians, legal advisers, and others have warned that the overall current version of the bill is discriminatory 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 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.”