PM to push for law declaring Israel nation-state of the Jews

Planned new Basic Law will respect minority rights, Netanyahu vows; proposal likely to shake up governing coalition

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, on May 1, 2014. (GPO/Amos Ben Gershom)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, on May 1, 2014. (GPO/Amos Ben Gershom)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday that he would advance new legislation in the Knesset to anchor Israel’s status as the nation-state of the Jewish people, saying that opposing such a recognition would eventually undermine the country’s very right to exist.

“It is my intention to submit a Basic Law to the Knesset that would provide a constitutional anchor for Israel’s status as the national state of the Jewish people,” he said at an event to mark Israel’s Independence Day in Tel Aviv.

The new Basic Law would respect the rights of non-Jewish minorities living in the country, in accordance with Israel’s Declaration of Independence, Netanyahu said.

Israel has no constitution, but the Supreme Court has declared that Basic Laws have the same standing as one.

Jerusalem’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state has been one of the major sticking points in the latest round of peace negotiations, with Netanyahu saying he will never sign an agreement without it and the Palestinians refusing adamantly. Even outside the framework of peace negotiations, Netanyahu’s plan is likely to cause controversy, as some 20 percent of Israel’s population is not Jewish.

“The Declaration of Independence sets, as the cornerstone in the life of the state, the national Jewish identity of the State of Israel. To my great regret, as we have seen recently, there are those who do not recognize this natural right,” Netanyahu said, referring to the Palestinians’ refusal to even discuss recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. “They seek to undermine the historic, moral and legal justification for the existence of the State of Israel as the national state of our people.”

Speaking to reporters at Independence Hall, where David Ben-Gurion declared the State of Israel 66 years ago, Netanyahu said he was confident that “the most basic component in our life as a nation will receive constitutional status similar to the other main components that are the foundation of our state, as determined in the basic laws.”

The right-leaning Likud, Yisrael Beytenu and Jewish Home factions can be expected to support his plan, while the centrist Yesh Atid and the dovish Hatnua parties will likely oppose. According to Channel 2’s chief political correspondent, Amit Segal, Netanyahu’s attempt to push through a new Basic Law could lead to the collapse of the governing coalition in the medium term.

Netanyahu clarified during his remarks that enshrining Israel’s status as Jewish state will have no bearing on the status of Israel’s large non-Jewish minority.

“The State of Israel will always preserve the full equality, in personal and civil rights, of all its citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, in a Jewish and democratic country,” he said. “And indeed, in Israel, individual and civil rights are assured for everyone, which sets us apart in the large expanse of the Middle East and even beyond.”

Critics of the new initiative were quick to fire the first shots in what will likely be an intense fight over the legislation.

One of Netanyahu’s coalition allies, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, panned the move, saying she would “continue to defend Israel’s values as a Jewish and democratic state, and by no means will we allow weakening the democratic values and subjugating them to the Jewish ones.”

“This is the essence of the declaration of independence and this is the basis of our existence,” Livni said. “Just as I have rejected initiatives like this in the past, I will do it [again], and it doesn’t matter who is suggesting them.”

Leaders from left-wing Knesset parties railed against Netanyahu’s proposal, saying the move would be ineffectual. “The political failure from Netanyahu’s camp is leading to the loss of a Jewish majority and making Israel a binational state,” Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Labor Party) said. “This distressing fact, no law can conceal.”

Meretz party leader Zahava Gal-on called it “a superfluous legal declaration that will not help Israel remain a Jewish state.”

“In the State of Israel there are also non-Jewish citizens and therefore the state must define itself as the state for the Jewish people and all its citizens,” she said.

“Was the state declared anew? Did Netanyahu fulfill his dream?” Peace Now director Yariv Oppenheimer tweeted. “Can we return to our routine now or do we have to go out and dance on the streets?”

Netanyahu said he was surprised that those who urge Israel to make territorial concessions to the Palestinians because they want to avoid a binational state are those who oppose defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. “One cannot favor the establishment of a Palestinian national state in order to maintain the Jewish character of the State of Israel and — at the same time — oppose recognizing that the State of Israel is the national state of the Jewish people,” the prime minister said. “Supporting the establishment of a Palestinian national state and opposing the recognition of the Jewish national state undermines — over the long term — the State of Israel’s very right to exist.”

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