Labor MK seeks to make Declaration of Independence part of ‘constitution’
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'Don't conduct your fights at the expense of minorities,' Bar urges coalition ministers

Labor MK seeks to make Declaration of Independence part of ‘constitution’

Instead of PM’s controversial ‘Jewish state’ bill, Hilik Bar proposes giving legal standing to founding document’s promise of equality

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

David Ben-Gurion, flanked by the members of his provisional government, reads the Declaration of Independence in the Tel Aviv Museum Hall on May 14, 1948 (Israel Government Press Office)
David Ben-Gurion, flanked by the members of his provisional government, reads the Declaration of Independence in the Tel Aviv Museum Hall on May 14, 1948 (Israel Government Press Office)

A Labor lawmaker has proposed the left’s first legislative response to the raft of right-wing nationality bills that have roiled the coalition: Adopt the Declaration of Independence, with its call for equality for all citizens, as part of Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws.

“I have no interest in solving the coalition crisis for [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Finance Minister Yair] Lapid,” Hilik Bar told The Times of Israel Monday. “But this fight is causing deep fractures in the Israeli public. I see the cries of the minorities in Israel, the cries of the Druze, and I want to try to give [Netanyahu and Lapid] the ability to climb down off this tree.”

“Go fight about other things. Don’t conduct your fights at the expense of such large sections of the Israeli public,” Bar urged.

Netanyahu has said repeatedly that he will press ahead with a version of the so-called “Jewish state” bill, despite bitter criticism from inside and outside the coalition.

Labor's Hilik Bar addresses the Knesset (Photo credit: FLASH90)
Labor’s Hilik Bar addresses the Knesset (Photo credit: FLASH90)

Israel’s May 14, 1948, Declaration of Independence provides for “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex” and urges “the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship.”

Bar’s alternative bill was formally filed this week with the Knesset Secretariat, and he is now collecting signatures ahead of its first Knesset vote, which he expects to happen in two to three weeks. Many Labor lawmakers have signed on, he said, and at least one from the coalition: Hatnua MK (and former Labor leader) Amram Mitzna.

Labor leader MK Isaac Herzog said the proposal would be raised in Monday’s Labor faction meeting in the Knesset, where the party would formally decide whether to endorse the bill.

At least three constitutional Basic Law bills are currently being considered in the government and Knesset that would expand and specify the legal ramifications of Israel’s definition as a Jewish nation-state. The bills, some of which met with some support on the center and left in the previous Knesset but which were proposed by right-wing MKs in the current Knesset, have now drawn strident criticism, including from President Reuven Rivlin and his predecessor Shimon Peres. Coalition partners Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Tzipi Livni (Hatnua) have indicated they would see the coalition collapse rather than support hardline versions of the bill, and Netanyahu was meeting with Lapid and Livni on Monday to try to resolve the crisis.

Israel's Declaration of Independence
Israel’s Declaration of Independence

The right-wing proponents of the bills see them as the legislature’s long-overdue reining in of Israel’s activist judiciary, which has settled key questions of the state’s identity in the past. But opponents argue that some versions of the bills go too far in explicitly identifying the state with its Jewish public, a move that would come at the expense of non-Jewish minorities.

Bar’s bill is short, consisting of a single article. It is not written in legal language, but as a simple declaration. It reads, in full:

“Bill: Declaration of Independence

“1. This law is intended to secure the role and values of the ‘Declaration of Independence’ in the laws of Israel, and to confer on the document for the first time the force of law, which will apply to the foundational values of the State of Israel as detailed in the Declaration of Independence (as read at the time of the declaration of the state’s establishment, appended herein).”

The bill then incorporates, in full, the text of the May 1948 declaration, as it was read by the state’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion.

The proposal is explicitly framed as the left’s response to the nation-state bills of the right, as the explanatory preface makes clear.

“In these days, when various ‘nationality’ bills are being proposed which have awakened nationalist, extreme voices who propose, or hint, at exclusion or discrimination of groups within Israel’s civil society, it is very important to give, at long last, legal force to the Declaration of Independence, to sanctify the principles and values of equality on which it is based, and to remind us all of the path to which we committed ourselves as the cornerstone on which the State of Israel was established,” the preface reads.

And it adds: “This bill will formally place the Declaration of Independence in the law books of the State of Israel, validate its [the state’s] values and give the Declaration and its values legal standing. The law is also intended to ensure equal rights to all the citizens of the State, and to address in legislation both the Jewish character and the democratic character of the State of Israel, and to give this important moral document, for the first time, legal standing.”

Two right-wing versions of the “Jewish state” bill were subsumed into an as-yet undrafted government bill in a cabinet decision on November 19. But critics fear that if the government bill doesn’t move forward, the right-wing versions are likely to be proposed once more in the plenum.

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