Vote on ‘Jewish state’ bill delayed amid coalition jockeying

Decision comes just hours after Livni dared PM to break up government over law she says defies democracy in Israel

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni before the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, November 16, 2014 (photo credit: Amit Shabi/POOL)
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni before the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, November 16, 2014 (photo credit: Amit Shabi/POOL)

Coalition leaders decided on Monday to delay a vote on the controversial “Jewish state” bill by one week, as ministers vowed to continue to oppose the measure even if it meant their jobs.

Yisrael Beytenu MK Robert Ilatov initially proposed the week-delay move, which was backed by the Jewish Home party at a meeting of the coalition partners.

The decision came just hours after Justice Minister Tzipi Livni reiterated her intention to fight the controversial proposal, which would enshrine in law Israel’s identity as a Jewish state, and challenged the prime minister to decide whether it is worth it to break up his coalition over the law.

“This law will not pass because we are not ready and I am not prepared to be a fig leaf for something so problematic,” Livni told Ynet news earlier Monday. “And if it goes [to a vote, as had originally been scheduled,] on Wednesday, I will not let it pass and will not compromise regarding its wording.

“The prime minister will have to decide whether he will fire ministers in his government and topple his coalition over their opposition to a law that goes against a Jewish and democratic Israel,” she said.

“If he wants elections over this, no problem.”

On Sunday, cabinet ministers approved a raft of clauses that the bill will be based on. While guaranteeing Israel’s democratic character, the bill, a softened version of earlier proposals, would reserve the right of national determination within the country to Jews alone.

Livni, the head of the Hatnua party, was one of six ministers who opposed the measure, along with Yesh Atid’s five cabinet members.

Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog speaks during a faction meeting in the Knesset on December 23, 2013. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog speaks during a faction meeting in the Knesset on December 23, 2013. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Labor) called once again on Monday for Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid, who heads the centrist Yesh Atid party, to bolt the coalition.

“There is nothing left for them to do there; it is a government of lighters and matches,” he said, calling on “all of the sane and central officials to form a large [political] bloc headed by the Labor party.”

“We see the government collapsing,” he added.

On Sunday night Livni was joined by Lapid in stressing that under no circumstances would they — or members of their parties — vote in favor of the law in its current form, despite the possibility that they could be fired by Netanyahu.

For his part, Netanyahu is not necessarily looking to force elections, but he is not afraid of them if it means reasserting his control over the government, according to sources close to the prime minister.

“Netanyahu is tired of his partners trying to control him and causing a crisis over every piece of legislation,” one source told Army Radio. “The government can only work if the partners stop trying to bring it down on a regular basis.”

On Sunday, the prime minister pushed through the legislation that would enshrine Israel’s character as a Jewish state in the country’s Basic Laws, which act as a de facto constitution. If passed into law, the measure would reserve what Netanyahu called “national rights,” such as the flag and anthem and right to immigrate, for Jews alone. It would also undergird Israel’s democratic nature by vouchsafing equality for all its citizens.

Livni has on multiple occasions accused Netanyahu of using the bill as a political maneuver to break apart his coalition and jockey for position ahead of possible early elections. She also characterized the attempt as a missed opportunity to advance legislation toward the establishment of a proper constitution for the State of Israel.

And on Monday, she chastised the prime minister for failing to present an actual bill.

“The prime minister did not present a law,” she said. “He talked about principles, most of which I agree with; I have comments on two or three sections there. Netanyahu said, in his principles, that we have to anchor [it] in accordance with the Declaration of Independence, but there is no connection between this and the terrible law of [coalition chairman MK] Ze’ev Elkin.”

Last week, Livni used her powers as chairman of the Ministerial Committee on Legislation to delay a vote on an initial “Jewish state” bill by Elkin, which was considered the most extreme of several bill submitted on the issue.

Netanyahu countered by bringing an altered version of Elkin’s bill to the cabinet for Sunday’s vote. The latest version eliminates some of the more inflammatory parts of the original, such as defining Israel’s democracy as subservient to its Jewish character.

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