World criticism of ‘Jewish state’ bill exacerbated by lack of peace talks

Netanyahu will eventually agree to a softened version of his controversial legislation, a former aide says. ‘But the damage is done’

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lights the Hanukia together with Rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinovitch, at the Western Wall on the second night of the Jewish holiday of Hannuka.  November 28, 2013. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lights the Hanukia together with Rabbi of the Western Wall Shmuel Rabinovitch, at the Western Wall on the second night of the Jewish holiday of Hannuka. November 28, 2013. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s so-called “Nationality bill,” which would cement in law the country’s status as a “Jewish state,” is far from a done deal. It has yet to even pass a first of three readings in the Knesset, and it is likely that the current version will undergo many changes before it enters the law books, if it does so at all.

And yet, the government already finds itself at the receiving end of considerable domestic and international flak over it.

Within Israel, critics of the bill include Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, President Reuven Rivlin, Culture Minister Limor Livnat, former defense minister Moshe Arens, former justice minister Dan Meridor (the last four of whom are all Likud veterans), Jewish and Arab opposition parties, some coalition members, and many other Israelis, emphatically including conservative-minded ones.

As if Israel hasn’t had enough bad press this year, the proposed legislation — which, in its current draft, stipulates that the right for national self-determination “is unique to the Jewish people” —  has provoked critical headlines in international media and denunciations — though rather mild ones, for now — from American and European government officials.

US State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said Monday that Washington expects Israel to “continue [its] commitment to democratic principles.” Longstanding US policy, he noted, says “that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state in which all citizens should enjoy equal rights.”

Even if the wording is softened, the bill “should be defeated” in any case, The New York Times insisted in an editorial entitled “Israel Narrows its Democracy” published Tuesday. It is “heartbreaking” that the Israeli cabinet approved the legislation in principle on Sunday, the paper lamented. “At best, the law would have no useful effect; at worst, it would seriously antagonize an already seething Arab minority and erode Israel’s standing among democratic nations.”

The Gray Lady is not known to be overly sympathetic to the current Israeli government, but more friendly papers took offense too. The Times of London, for instance, headlined its article on the issue with “Israel set to make Arabs ‘second-class citizens.’”

Quoting this headline in a fiery Knesset speech Wednesday afternoon, opposition Labor leader Isaac Herzog accused Netanyahu of creating an “unprecedented” wave of anti-Israel criticism.

Europeans diplomats chimed in as well. “We have taken note of the pending legislation,” a senior European Union source told The Times of Israel on Wednesday. “We trust and expect that any bill would fully recognize and respect Israel’s longstanding commitment to basic democratic principles.”

The Dutch ambassador to Israel, Caspar Veldkamp, said the Israeli debate surrounding the Nationality Bill is being closely followed everywhere in the Western world. “We expect Israel to continue to live up to its democratic ideas and practices,” he told The Times of Israel.

Netanyahu is aware of the international scrutiny but will not be deterred by it, as he made crystal clear in his Knesset speech. “He follows closely international opinion,” said a source close to him. “On this issue, he thinks there’s a lot of misinformation out there.”

The prime minister read the New York Times editorial on Tuesday morning before meeting his Czech counterpart, Bohuslav Sobotka, and deliberately sought to address some of the misconceptions raised by the article, the source said.

“Israel is a democratic state, as it was and always will be,” Netanyahu said at a joint press conference with Sobotka. “I don’t know a country that is more democratic, or a more vibrant democracy than Israel in the world, certainly not in our region. What is being challenged today is Israel’s existence as the nation-state of Jewish people, and therefore we will anchor in the law this national right of the Jewish people alongside a guarantee of individual rights for all its citizens.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka speak after signing an intergovernmental agreement, at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on November 25, 2014. (Photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Netanyahu and Czech PM Sobotka, November 25, 2014. (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)

During Wednesday’s stormy Knesset session, Netanyahu again defended his proposal, citing, among other things, the 1917 Balfour Declaration and his declared wish to prevent a binational state by creating two separate national states — one for the Palestinians, one for the Jews. But the absence of peace talks with the Palestinians, Israeli sources acknowledge, is exacerbating criticism of the proposed legislation — which Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas suggested on Wednesday was further undermining prospects for progress.

It can be doubted whether statements like these will diminish the international criticism if the bill progresses in the Knesset. Netanyahu seems willing to go head to head with the opposition from abroad — and the opposition within his coalition, where Yesh Atid and Hatnua have made plain their reservations — and even risk new elections over this bill. But is it really so important to him that he is willing to put Israel’s reputation as a democracy on the line?

Yoaz Hendel in 2010 (Photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/ Flash 90)
Yoaz Hendel (Photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/ Flash 90)

“I’m convinced that he cares about the public perception of Israel,” said Yoaz Hendel, who headed the Public Diplomacy Directorate at the Prime Minister’s Office from 2011 until 2012. Netanyahu does not want to damage Israel’s reputation, Hendel went on, but the current debate about the various versions of the bill has to be seen in the context of electoral politics, with current feverish speculation that Netanyahu may choose or be forced into elections in 2015.

Hendel thinks the law will pass, in one form or another: Sooner or later, proponents and opponents of the legislation — chief among them Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid — will agree on a compromise version, which will sound much less drastic than the current draft, Hendel said. Netanyahu, who has vowed to pass the law no matter what, will eventually “climb down from the tree” on the specific terms, he predicted.

“As soon as a compromise is found and Netanyahu and Livni agree on a version that will safeguard Israel’s democracy, it’ll be easier to do damage control,” said Hendel, who today heads the Institute for Zionist Strategy. But the international outcry and the bad taste in the mouths of international observers will persist for a while, he noted. “The damage is done.”

Many Western embassies in Israel have received plenty of inquiries from back home on Israel’s ostensibly discriminatory move. The world wonders why such a bill is needed, why it is being proposed at this volatile time, and what implications it could have for the future of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, a senior Western diplomat stationed in Tel Aviv told The Times of Israel on Wednesday. “This bill is very quickly linked to questions about the two-state solution or a binational state.”

Indeed, diplomats in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, tasked with explaining Israeli policies and protecting Israel’s good name abroad, say their job has not been made easier by the controversy surrounding the Nationality Law. Still, it’s a legitimate debate, they argue, and it would be premature to condemn Israel over proposed legislation whose future is uncertain and whose text is still being debated.

In the meantime, the ministry’s official reply to queries about the bill asserts that “Israel and the Western world share common values and we have no intention whatsoever of relinquishing or abandoning these values.”

The nature of the final text will determine the extent to which the international community buys this argument. Whatever the ultimate draft, if the Knesset votes it into law, Israel will doubtless receive headlines and editorials in some quarters even more critical than those it garnered this week.

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