Netanyahu dismisses criticism of nation-state law as ‘nonsense’

Prime minister calls on cabinet to 'fight for truth'; Livni claims Likud wanted opposition to vote against law so Netanyahu would be seen as more nationalistic than Zionist Union

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on July 29, 2018. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool Yedioth Ahronoth/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday adamantly dismissed criticism of  the controversial nation-state law, and told coalition lawmakers to “fight” for the legislation’s acceptance.

“There is constant resistance to the nation-state bill. The discourse is one-sided, the discussions in the [television] studio shallow,” Netanyahu said at the weekly cabinet meeting. “Do not be apologetic; fight for the truth.”

The comments came as opposition to the law continued to mount, with coalition lawmakers calling for changes to address concerns in the Druze community, and others continuing to protest provisions in the law derided as discriminatory toward the country’s non-Jews.

Netanyahu said criticism of the law, which he called the “essence of the Zionist vision,” was “nonsense.”

“The State of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, with full equality of rights for all its citizens. This is the meaning of the words ‘Jewish and democratic state,'” he said.

“Does the fact that our flag has a Star of David invalidate the individual right of any Israeli citizen? Nonsense — this statement ensures that there will be no other flag. Does the statement that ‘Hatikva’ is our national anthem detract from the personal rights of anyone in Israel? Nonsense — it says there will be no other anthem,” he said.

The Star of David is a Jewish symbol and “Hatikva” speaks of Jewish yearning for the Land of Israel during years of exile.

Members of Israel’s Druze community arrive to attend a celebration at the holy tomb of Nebi Shu’eib in northern Israel on April 25, 2018. (AFP Photo Jalaa/Marey)

The nation-state bill — which for the first time enshrines Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people” and says “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people” — has sparked widespread criticism from Israel’s minorities, the international community and Jewish groups abroad.

While most opposition has come from outside his coalition, Netanyahu has faced internal pressure to give the Druze some sort of special status in recognition of their contributions to the state, which include serving in the military.

But the prime minister, who has said he wouldn’t amend the law for the Druze after meeting community leaders, said their complaints against the law were unfounded.

“Nothing in this law violates your rights as equal citizens of the State of Israel, and nothing prejudices the special status of the Druze community in Israel. The people of Israel, and I am part of it, love and cherish you. We greatly value our partnership and our alliance,” he said.

“I am aware of the heartfelt feelings that come from members of the community,” he said, noting that was in ongoing dialog with community heads to find “solutions that will respond to these feelings and give expression to our special partnership.”

Last week, Israeli Druze leaders, including three Knesset members, petitioned the High Court of Justice against the legislation, saying it was an “extreme” act that discriminated against the country’s minorities.

Israeli ministers have moved to reassure the Druze community that it is valued in Israeli society and have proposed a raft of placatory measures.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) meets with Sheikh Muafak Tariff, spiritual leader of Israel’s Druze community, Communications Minister Ayoub Kara (L) and other Druze leaders at his office in Jerusalem to discuss the nation-state law on July 27, 2018. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

The Druze, a breakaway sect from Islam, are the only minority that has taken upon itself Israel’s mandatory draft and serves in large numbers alongside Jewish soldiers in some of the IDF’s most elite units.

The prime minister also took a swipe at the the opposition, accusing it of hypocrisy for refusing to back the law.

“For decades, the opposition has been preaching to us that we should withdraw to the 1967 lines in order to ensure that Israel will be the nation-state of the Jewish people with a Jewish majority in the country. So suddenly when we legislate the basic law that promises exactly this, the left shouts? What hypocrisy!” he said.

Earlier on Sunday, opposition leader MK Tzipi Livni said that she and her faction would have supported the law with a small change ensuring “equality for all Israel’s citizens,” but was told by someone in Likud that Netanyahu was more interested in promoting his image as a nationalist leader for electoral gains.

“Before the vote on the nation-state bill we asked that it be written in a way that would enable all of us to vote for it,” Livni told Army Radio. “The Likud party approached and told me that Netanyahu wants the opposition to vote against the law in order to seem even more nationalistic than you [Livni] are.”

“It is,” she said, “an ugly political event.”

New head of the opposition Tzipi Livni speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv on July 23, 2018 (Flash90)

On Thursday, Livni met with spiritual head of the Druze community Sheikh Muafak Tarif.

“Not just a blood pact — a pact of equals,” Livni wrote on Twitter after the meeting. “Blood pact” is a phrase often used to describe the alliance between Israel’s Jews and Druze communities.

Resigning Sunday to take over as head of the Jewish Agency, outgoing opposition chief Isaac Herzog urged MKs to “put the genie back in the bottle” and amend law in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence to also enshrine equality for all citizens.

On Saturday an Arab Israeli lawmaker from the Zionist Union faction announced that he would be resigning from the Knesset to protest the recently passed legislation, which he said officially discriminates against Israel’s Arab minority.

Zionist Union MK Zouheir Bahloul, December 5, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Zouheir Bahloul told Hadashot news that “the nation-state law makes the Arab population officially, constitutionally outside the realms of equality in Israel.”

Bahloul said this Knesset had recently passed laws he called “racist and extreme.”

The nation-state law, proponents say, puts Jewish values and democratic values on equal footing. Critics, however, say the law effectively discriminates against Israel’s Arabs and other minority communities.

The law became one of the Basic Law, which, similar to a constitution, underpin Israel’s legal system and are more difficult to repeal than regular laws.

The law also declares that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, sets the Hebrew calendar as the official calendar of the state, and recognizes Independence Day, days of remembrance, and Jewish holidays. One clause of the bill downgrades the Arabic language from official to “special” standing, but also cryptically stipulates that “this clause does not harm the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect.”

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