Government shelves controversial ‘Jewish state bill’

Legislation, which would enshrine Israel’s status as the nation state of the Jewish people, won’t come up for ministerial debate

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, on July 24, 2013. (FLASH90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, on July 24, 2013. (FLASH90)

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation will not vote Sunday on a controversial bill that would enshrine Israel’s status as the Jewish state, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the measure off the agenda.

The bill, which has come up for debate in various forms over the last few years, will instead be discussed by a special committee comprising Knesset members from the various coalition parties, Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party said in a statement.

But a source on the special committee was quoted by Haaretz as saying Saturday night that Netanyahu was seeking to “dissolve” all discussion of the bill, which was a critical source of strife in Israel’s previous government.

The bill would vouchsafe a constitutional right to self-determination in Israel to Jews only, and interpret all jurisprudence in light of that assertion. It would also enshrine various symbols such as the flag and the national anthem, as well as issues such as the status of Jerusalem and the right of Jews to immigrate to the country.

Previous iterations of the bill faced fierce criticism from opposition lawmakers and others, who claimed the legislation gave preeminence to Israel’s identity as a Jewish state above its democratic nature, and would effectively make non-Jewish Israelis second-class citizens.

Critics also say the Jewish state bill would give way to anti-democratic legislation and discriminatory policies against Israel’s Arab population.

Netanyahu’s record of staunch support for the bill was one of the reasons for his previous government falling apart in November of 2014, prompting March’s elections. Then-ministers Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid strongly opposed the bill and threatened to bolt the coalition over the issue.

After his reelection in March, Netanyahu vowed that his new government would pass a softened version of the bill. However, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who chairs the coalition party Kulanu, has expressed opposition to it.

According to reports, it was Kahlon’s resistance that forced Netanyahu to take the legislation off the agenda of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation for the time being.

Knesset member Avi Dichter of Likud, who formulated the latest version of the bill, said the decision to shelve it was a “badge of shame” for the right and, in a statement Saturday, vowed to redouble his efforts to promote it.

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