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Analysis

Updated Nation-State Law that includes ‘equal rights’ clause unlikely to advance

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked and Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar slam proposals to refine or revoke contentious law that enshrines Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people

Carrie Keller-Lynn

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman leads a Yisrael Beytenu faction meeting at the Knesset on May 16, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman leads a Yisrael Beytenu faction meeting at the Knesset on May 16, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Despite fiery debate about updating the controversial Jewish nation-state law and a fresh draft of proposed changes, the effort remains unlikely to advance in the Knesset due to divisions within the coalition, particularly from several right-wing ministers.

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman on Sunday re-introduced the idea of neutering the 2018 Basic Law: Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People.

The law enshrines Israel as the Jewish national state but has been fiercely criticized as discriminating against minorities, and especially against Druze citizens, many of whom serve in senior positions in the Israeli military and other state agencies.

Also on Sunday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz announced his intention to advance his proposal to create a new basic law to establish the principle of individual equality before the law.

Holding quasi-constitutional status as basic laws, the nation-state statute requires an absolute majority of at least 61 votes to change and Gantz’s equality bill would require the same to be passed.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked of the Yamina party was quick to strike down both ideas, threatening to pull a “veto” if necessary to block them.

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar similarly slammed the reform effort, stating in his New Hope party’s faction meeting that: “Israel is a Jewish and democratic country. Therefore – the Nation-State Law – that anchors Israel’s identity as a Jewish country – will not be repealed and will not change.”

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar leads a New Hope faction meeting at the Knesset on May 16, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, for his part, said that he supports updating the law, but only if the coalition could come to an agreement.

The coalition’s stand-in whip, Boaz Toporovsky, clarified to the national-religious affiliated Srugim news site that the initiatives would not progress without alignment among the coalition parties: “Without the consent of all coalition members there will be no changes to the basic law, as set out in the coalition agreement. If it is possible to amend the Nation-State Law, we will do it, but if there is no agreement, we will not do it,” he said.

Agreement to move forward is unlikely across the shaky, big tent coalition that has explicitly adopted the survival strategy of focusing on non-contentious, consensus pieces of legislation in order to make it through the summer term with only 60 of the Knesset’s 120 seats.

While the 54 right-religious members of the opposition are not expected to support revisions or a new equality law, the 6-seat mostly Arab Joint List faction would actively support changes.

“I call on the coalition to take help from the Joint List to pass the Equality Law in spite of Shaked’s opposition,” faction leader Ayman Odeh wrote on Twitter.

“We have not forgotten that only two months ago Shaked and her friends passed the racist Family Separation Law with support of the opposition, despite opposition from [coalition party] Meretz,” he added, referring to the so-called Citizenship Law, an annually-renewed measure which prevents most Palestinians who marry Israelis from obtaining permanent residency.

Lt. Col. Mahmoud Kheir el-Din, in an undated photograph published by the military on May 15, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

Both Liberman’s and Gantz’s initiatives were announced on in the wake of security services releasing the name earlier on Sunday of Lt. Col. Mahmoud Kheir el-Din, a Druze special forces officer who was killed in action in Gaza in 2018.

While Liberman’s comments and language within the draft bill proposal connect the need to update the law to the Druze community, his Yisrael Beytenu party is supported by a large voter base of Israelis from the former Soviet Union, many of whom are not Jewish or are not recognized by the state as Jewish.

Speaking in his party’s Monday faction meeting, Liberman again called on the need to end a “contradiction” in how Israel treats Druze citizens.

Druze men are subject to compulsory military service and many Druze communities actively integrate into the state, but community leaders describe a situation in which they are treated as second-class citizens, especially in matters of municipal budgets and planning. The Nation-State Law has been an open wound between the Druze and the state since its passage.

“On the one side, we say ‘brothers in arms’ and ‘hero of Israel,’” Liberman said in his Monday faction meeting, quoting Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s praise of Kheir al-Din.

But, “when you make a mistake, we can correct it,” he added.

Yisrael Beytenu on Monday released its draft proposed update to the Nation-State Law, which would make two key changes: adding clauses to uphold equal rights and declaring the state’s sovereignty in the hands of all of its citizens.

Currently, the Nation-State Law holds Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, but the draft bill would swap it with the following language:

“The State of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people in which it exercises its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination. Israel also maintains equal rights for all its citizens without distinction of religion or nationality in the spirit of the principles in the Declaration of the Establishment of the State.”

As a second change, the draft bill would replace language that preserves national self-determination for Israel’s Jewish population with: “The sovereignty of the state is in the hands of all its citizens regardless of religion, sex and nationality.

Liberman came out against the Nation-State Law in the 2018 debates around its drafting and development, but ultimately did not block it and members of his party voted to pass the measure as a basic law.

Gantz did not participate in nation-state debate from within the parliament, only joining the Knesset in 2019.

Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz seen with members of the Druze community and activists outside his home in Rosh Ha’ayin, during a protest against the nation-state law, January 14, 2019. (Flash90)

In the proposal submitted to Knesset administration with the proposed changes, Yisrael Beytenu faction members wrote that the updates would reflect Israel’s declaration of independence and bring the country more in line with other democratic nation-states.

The Nation-State Law was a key right-wing achievement passed under former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The now opposition leader struck out against any changes in the law on Monday, saying that it would down a path that ends with nullifying Jewish right of return, by which diaspora Jewry can be eligible for Israeli citizenship.

“Now the deniers of the state are coming with a demand to repeal or change the Nation-State Law,” Netanyahu said at Likud faction meeting.

“Their goal is clear: if you repeal the Nation-State Law you are essentially repealing the Law of Return, and that will lead to the flooding of Israel with millions of Muslim immigrants who will abolish the Jewish majority in the country,” he continued, adding, “That’s the real intent here.”

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