Former president Shimon Peres bitterly criticized the “Jewish state” bill on Thursday, arguing that the legislation is designed for political gain and damages Israel’s democratic principles.
In an address marking the anniversary of the death of former prime minister David Ben-Gurion, Peres joined a chorus of critics — including current President Reuven Rivlin, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, and Finance Minister Yair Lapid — of the proposed legislation, which has been insistently backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The controversial bill, which would enshrine Israel’s Jewish status in its constitutional laws, is scheduled to face its first Knesset reading on Wednesday, and its fate in that vote, should it go ahead, could affect the future of the coalition government.
In his address on Thursday, with Netanyahu in the audience, Peres said the bill is “an attempt to undermine the Declaration of Independence for political interests.”
“The bill will damage the country both at home and abroad and it will erode the democratic principles of the State of Israel,” he added.
Both Netanyahu and Rivlin reiterated their stance vis a vis the contentious bill at the Ben-Gurion memorial on Thursday, with the prime minister arguing that the measure was the natural progression of Ben-Gurion’s legacy.
But Peres termed the legislation “an unnecessary political addendum which will undermine the values which unite our people.”
“Ben-Gurion’s legacy demands that we make sure Israel remains the state it was founded to be – a model state, enlightened, seeking peace, justice and equality,” said the former president, who completed his term earlier this summer.
Peres also cautioned that the legislation could spark “religious devastation, which would be difficult to stop.”
Rivlin, a former member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, echoed Peres’s remarks on Thursday, accusing the government of letting its political interests override its national interests and decrying what he said was the decline of Israeli values.
“At this time, it seems that the political considerations of different groups in Israeli society are mingling with its national deliberations; it seems that we must ask ourselves tough questions. I want to believe that the Israeli public and its leaders have not given up, and will not give up, on the values and language that bind us together,” Rivlin said.
Speaking at the same event, Netanyahu defended the bill once again, referencing, much like Peres, Ben-Gurion’s political legacy and vision to back up his claim.
“The Declaration of Independence was not the end of the line in Ben-Gurion’s mind. It was a stage, an important one, but only one stage in Zionism’s definition,” he said. The first Israeli leader was “not a racist. He was a Jewish patriot, a democrat,” Netanyahu said, and yet the Jewish character of the state “was clear to him.”
“When Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of the state, no one saw the need to enact Basic Laws to ensure its democratic character. But years later, there were those who challenged it, and therefore they legislated the Basic Law on Human dignity and liberty,” he said. “Now there are those challenging the State of Israel’s Jewish character, and therefore there is a need for the nation-state law.”
In a raucous Knesset session on Wednesday, Netanyahu defended the controversial bill, attacking critics of the legislation by pointing out that they want a bi-national Israel next to a Palestinian state rid of its Jewish population.
He said the bill was needed to correct the imbalance between Israel’s Jewish and democratic characteristics.
“The bill that I’ll bring [before the Knesset] will be based on the fact that the State of Israel is a Jewish and democratic state,” Netanyahu said. “These principles are intertwined and one doesn’t supersede the other. Israel guarantees equal rights for all its citizens, without discrimination based on religion, race or sex.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.