Lapid, Livni resolved to fight ‘Jewish State’ bill

Senior ministers say their parties will vote against the measure in the Knesset, in move that could lead to early elections

Adiv Sterman is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (left) and Finance Minister Yair Lapid (right) in the Knesset, July 31, 2013 (photo credit: Flash90)
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (left) and Finance Minister Yair Lapid (right) in the Knesset, July 31, 2013 (photo credit: Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition appeared to be standing on shaky ground on Sunday following the cabinet’s approval of the controversial “Jewish State” bill, with two senior ministers who opposed the bill indicating that they would break ranks with the coalition and vote against it in the Knesset plenum.

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnua) and Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) stressed that under no circumstances would they — or members of their parties — vote in favor of the law in its current form, despite the possibility that they could be fired by Netanyahu.

“I will not give a hand to this bill,” Livni said in an interview with Channel 2 on Sunday evening, hours after the proposal was approved in the cabinet. “I am prepared to be fired over this issue.”

Livni reiterated her accusation that Netanyahu was using the bill as a political maneuver to break apart his coalition and jockey for position ahead of possible early elections. She added that the government had missed a key opportunity to advance legislation toward the establishment of a proper constitution for the State of Israel.

Currently, Israel’s set of Basic Laws function as the country’s de facto constitution.

During Sunday’s ministerial debate on the bill, Livni accused Netanyahu of looking for an excuse to give the pink slip to her and other ministers. “You want us to vote against it so that you can fire us,” she told the prime minister.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with Ministers of Intelligence Yuval Steinitz (C) and Interior Gilad Erdan, during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on Sunday, November 23, 2014. Photo by Ohad Zwigenberg/POOL/FLASH90
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right), with Minister of Intelligence Yuval Steinitz (center) and Minister of the Interior Gilad Erdan (left) during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on November 23, 2014. (photo credit: Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool/Flash90)

Lapid, the finance minister, whose Yesh Atid party contributes 19 MKs to the coalition, also took a hard stance against the prime minister Sunday, vowing that his party would vote against the bill.

“The bill submitted today puts the Jewish state before democracy,” Lapid said during a speech at Tel Aviv University. “Neither I, nor the Yesh Atid party, will vote for the law.”

Earlier, Lapid suggested that the bill would have been opposed by the likes of former prime ministers David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin, as well as the godfather of the Likud party, Ze’ev Jabotinsky.

The finance minister also mentioned Zidan Saif, a Druze policeman who was killed in a terror attack in a Jerusalem synagogue while attempting to protect Jewish worshipers at the site.

“What can we say to the [Saif] family now? That we are passing a law that would turn them into second-class citizens?” Lapid asked.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid on September 7, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Finance Minister Yair Lapid, September 7, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s bill would enshrine in law Israel’s Jewishness, reserving what the prime minister called “national rights,” such as the flag and 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.

The bill comes amid rumors that leading politicians, including Netanyahu himself, are preparing for the possibility of early elections.

Science Minister Yaakov Peri of Lapid’s Yest Atid party said that the bill reminded him “of the countries that took upon themselves Shariah law.”

Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog speaks during a party meeting in the Israeli parliament, July 28, 2014. (photo credit: Flash90)
Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog speaks during a party meeting in the Israeli parliament, July 28, 2014. (photo credit: Flash90)

Opposition head MK Isaac Herzog (Labor) criticized Netanyahu for approving the bill at a time when tensions between Jews and Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have fueled violent clashes.

Raising the topic at such a politically and diplomatically fraught time is irresponsible, unnecessary, and is likely to fan the flames that are engulfing the area,” he said. “Only a prime minister who is lacking confidence, who has no vision, and no plan, needs laws that obviously won’t improve the lives of the citizens.”

MK Zahava Gal-on, leader of the left-wing Meretz faction, echoed Herzog’s condemnation of the timing of the bill as well as its content.

“This is a law that has a black flag flying over it,” she said, invoking an Israeli military term indicating an order that is patently illegal and should thus be refused. “Netanyahu and all of his extreme right-wing coalition members are partners in a crime against Israeli democracy, and will be responsible for one of the blackest stains in Israel’s law books.”

Gal-on criticized the ministers for backing a bill which, she said, discriminates against Israel’s Arab population, after last week politicians from across the spectrum sharply opposed a move by the mayor of Ashkelon to stop employing Arab construction workers in the wake of a deadly terror attack on a Jerusalem synagogue.

On the other side of the aisle, MK Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home), one of the sponsors of the bill, welcomed the cabinet’s approval.

“Those who oppose it by saying that it is a dangerous law are really a dangerous voice against the future of Israel,” she said. “The formula that was presented to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a good basis for the law.”

Jewish Home MK Ayelet Shaked, March 11, 2013 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Jewish Home MK Ayelet Shaked, March 11, 2013 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

A tweaked version of the bill, prepared by Netanyahu and aimed at garnering the broadest possible approval from Knesset members, will be brought to a plenum vote on Wednesday.

MK Ze’ev Elkin (Likud), another sponsor of the bill, derided those who opposed it while supporting the establishment of Palestinian state.

“The maneuvers and attempts by those who want to establish a Palestinian nation-state, but are not prepared to define the State of Israel as a Jewish nation-state, won’t do any good. And a clear majority of the government and the people insist that the Jewish State bill be approved and be entered into the law books,” he said.

Stuart Winer contributed to this report.

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