Livni postpones ‘Jewish state’ vote, PM to present bill anyway

In latest intra-coalition spat, Netanyahu says discussing proposed law is ‘important for the future of the Jewish people in Israel’

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni seen in the Knesset on November 12, 2014. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni seen in the Knesset on November 12, 2014. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

In the latest sign of cracks in the governing coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Sunday that he would override Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s surprise decision to abruptly cancel mid-session a ministerial debate on a contentious bill that would enshrine Israel as a Jewish state.

The prime minister stressed that the bill would not be presented to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation for a second time as Livni wished, and would instead be debated next week by the full government cabinet, which has the authority to forward legislation to the Knesset plenum for vote.

“The State of Israel is the national homeland of the Jewish people,” Netanyahu said following Livni’s cessation of the ministerial debate, according to the Walla news site. “This is a matter of principle, and it is important for the future of the Jewish people in Israel.”

Livni, whose Hatnua party’s six MKs sit in Netanyahu’s 68-member coalition, halted the debate following a request by Science, Technology and Space Minister Yaakov Peri, who during the session urged the committee members to reconsider voting on the proposed law due to the “volatile situation in the Arab sector,” apparently referencing the sporadic riots which broke out in several Arab Israeli communities across the country over the past week.

“Discussing the law at this time is irresponsible and therefore I would like to postpone the hearing,” he said.

Livni said her role as chair of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation allowed her to postpone the debate, adding that she planned to continue working toward strengthening Israel’s democratic character. “I have not given up on democracy,” she said. “I will continue to fight so that Israel will be both a Jewish state and a democratic state. That is the basis of Zionism.”

Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel in Jerusalem on September 22, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Housing Minister Uri Ariel, of the Orthodox-nationalist Jewish Home party, retorted to Livni’s move by blurting out, “That’s sabotage,” Army Radio reported.

Coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin, who had proposed the bill, asserted later that Livni had attempted “a stinking maneuver,” accused some coalition members of acting “utterly illogically,” and said that evidently the internal coalition friction would ultimately force the collapse of the coalition and elections.

Chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense committee MK Ze'ev Elkin (Likud) speaks during a session, on September 3, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Coalition chairman MK Ze’ev Elkin (Likud). (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Earlier on Sunday, Netanyahu offered his support for the controversial bill, though he said revisions would need to be made before the proposed legislation fulfilled its goal of lending “balance” to the judicial system.

A ministerial debate on the measure, which seeks to anchor in law Israel’s definition as a Jewish state in the country’s Basic Laws, was scheduled for Sunday afternoon. The version that was to be discussed by ministers Sunday, before the justice minister postponed it, also reportedly defines Israel’s democracy as subservient to its Jewish character and demotes Arabic from its status as an official language.

“Israel is a Jewish and democratic state,” Netanyahu said at the weekly cabinet meeting.

“The balance between these two things is necessary, also to balance our justice system, which certainly recognizes the democratic side, and will now need to recognize that we are the national state of the Jewish people.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, November 16, 2014. (photo credit: Amit Shabi/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, November 16, 2014. (photo credit: Amit Shabi/POOL)

The bill “will undergo many changes and many discussions,” Netanyahu said, adding that the legislation will also ensure equality for all of Israel’s citizens.

The bill was brought before the Ministerial Committee for Legislation by coalition chairman Elkin (Likud), who originally introduced it in 2011 along with then-Kadima MK Avi Dichter. It is thought highly unlikely to become law in its current form. Netanyahu proposed his own version of such legislation in May.

Elkin’s proposal is one of several different bills seeking to define Israel as a Jewish state that have been circling in the Knesset in recent years, none of which have made much progress in the plenum, and is considered to present the most extreme version of such a law.

The prime minister’s remarks as well as the bill itself drew fierce criticism from various left-wing and Arab MKs on Sunday.

MK Dov Khenin of the Hadash party called the proposed legislation a “provocative initiative” which aims to “subjugate the state’s democratic principles” to its Jewish ones.

Meretz MK Zahava Gal-on said that should the ministerial committee approve the bill, its members would be “accomplices in a crime against democracy” which would “transform Israel’s Arabs into second-class citizens.”

The Arab Balad party issued a statement in which it said the bill “would pave the way for the enactment of racist and discriminatory laws against Arab citizens,” according to the Ynet news site.

Meanwhile, Livni’s move was met with furious opposition from right-wing lawmakers who supported the bill, with Jewish Home party representatives threatening to vote against any proposed law presented in the future by the justice minister or by members of the Hatnua party which she heads.

“From our perspective, the law should have gone through today,” Economy Minister Naftali Bennett said Sunday. “We will not cooperate with Yesh Atid or Hatnua with regard to issues relating to the coalition. I will not support any law presented by Lapid or Livni,” he said.

In the ministerial debate itself, Housing Minister Uri Ariel, also a Jewish Home MK, accused Livni of sabotaging the legislation process, according to Haaretz.

Livni did not respond to Ariel’s allegations and instead read aloud the committee rules which gave her authority to postpone the discussion.

The rift between Netanyahu and Livni highlighted the mounting strains which have been increasingly weighing down on the current coalition. Netanyahu is under growing pressure from the center-left members of his coalition, who have voiced criticism over his handling of the collapsed peace process with the Palestinians as well as his role in calming tensions with Arab Israeli citizens.

Last week, a Yesh Atid minister said his party would have to reconsider its position hours after Hatnua’s Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz resigned and slammed Netanyahu over the budget. Earlier, Labor opposition chief Isaac Herzog urged the whole Hatnua party to quit the coalition.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu is also being pressured from the right, notably by the 12-member Jewish Home party.

Two weeks ago, amid riots in East Jerusalem neighborhoods and after a series of terror attacks in the capital, Bennett sniped that the government had “no right to exist” if it could not ensure security in its capital.

“A government that does not know how to regain deterrence and sovereignty and provide security for its citizens in their capital does not have a right to exist,” he said.

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