Ministers to debate controversial ‘Jewish State’ bill
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Ministers to debate controversial ‘Jewish State’ bill

Coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin’s radical proposal, unlikely to become law, would give preference to Israel’s Jewish character over its democracy

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Immigration Minister Ze'ev Elkin. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Immigration Minister Ze'ev Elkin. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The government will on Sunday discuss a controversial – and democratically questionable — bill which seeks to enshrine Israel’s definition as a Jewish state in the country’s Basic Laws. The version to be discussed by ministers Sunday also reportedly defines Israel’s democracy as subservient to its Jewish character and demotes Arabic from its official language status.

The bill will be brought before the Ministerial Committee for Legislation by Coalition chairman Ze’ev 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. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proposed his own version of such legislation in May.

The Elkin 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.

Haaretz reported over the weekend that the proposal to be debated by ministers defines Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people; it conditions Israel’s democracy on its adherence to its Jewish nature, and encourages reliance on traditional Jewish law in legislation and legal rulings; it declares Hebrew as the only official language of the state while redefining Arabic as a language with a “special status”; it dictates that the state will encourage Jewish settlement within its borders but is not obligated to ensure construction and housing for the country’s other peoples.

Sources in the coalition told Haaretz the bill would likely be buried by appeals and legal objections. Elkin himself was said unlikely to believe it has a shot at being passed by the current Knesset, especially with the looming prospect of new general elections in the coming year.

However, the Likud MK may be bringing it before ministers for several reasons. First, as a form of protest against Justice Minister Tzipi Livni – who was tasked by Netanyahu with reviewing the various forms of the bill and drafting a version the government could get behind, but who has not made much headway on the issue.

Second, if Elkin can get the bill through a first reading in the Knesset plenum, he could be in a better position to advance it under the next Knesset, as it would not need to go through the preliminary legislation steps again. And third, pushing the bill would score Elkin points in right-wing and religious circles.

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni speaks during a ceremony  at the Israel Bar Association in Jerusalem, on September 2, 2014. (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni speaks during a ceremony at the Israel Bar Association in Jerusalem, on September 2, 2014. (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Livni, who has demonstrated no enthusiasm for the legislation, said Thursday that she is increasingly questioning her role in the coalition. Speaking four days after her Hatnua party colleague Amir Peretz resigned as environment minister, she said she asked herself “almost every day whether I still need to be in the government” and that there would come a point “when I’ll say, no more’.”

Netanyahu in May repeated a promise to advance his version of the constitutional Basic Law. He said then that the state lacked “adequate expression” of Israel’s “existence as the nation-state of the Jewish people” in the country’s set of Basic Laws, which are Israel’s alternative to a constitution.

Such a bill, he said, “will define the national right of the Jewish people to the State of Israel, and will do so without harming the individual rights of all Israeli citizens in the State of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting on February 16, 2014 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting on February 16, 2014 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/Flash90)

“It will fortify the Law of Return as a Basic Law. It will anchor in Basic Laws the status of the national symbols — the flag, the anthem, the language and other components of our national existence.”

Netanyahu said Israel’s Jewish status was under “constant and increasing assault from the outside, and even from within.”

Netanyahu tied the new bill to the Israeli demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish nation-state.

“There are of course those who do not want the State of Israel to be defined as the nation-state of the Jewish people,” he told the cabinet ministers. “They want to establish a Palestinian nation-state next to us, and that Israel slowly transform into a binational Arab-Jewish state in its shrunken borders.

“The State of Israel grants equal rights, full individual rights, to all its citizens. But it is the nation-state of one nation only – the Jewish nation – and not of any other nation. Therefore, in order to fortify Israel’s status as the nation-state of the Jewish people I intend to lead the legislation of a Basic Law that will anchor this status,” he said.

Haviv Rettig Gur and JTA contributed to this report.

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