A planned vote on a Basic Law which would enshrine Israel’s legal status as a Jewish nation-state was scuttled Sunday, as Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnua) exercised her powers as chairwoman of the Ministerial Committee on Legislation to delay the discussion.
Sunday’s vote already had Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s support, though he insisted the bill still needed some changes. “The judiciary, which recognizes Israel’s democratic side, will also have to recognize that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish People,” Netanyahu said at the start of Sunday morning’s cabinet meeting. We will advance the nation state law today, and while it will go through many changes, at the end of the day we will be able to make clear that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, along with a guarantee of equal rights for all of its citizens,” Netanyahu added.
The legislation in question, called Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, states “the State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish People in which it realizes its hope for self-determination according to its traditional and historic heritage” and that “the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People.” It was drafted by coalition chairman Zeev Elkin (Likud), and is only the latest incarnation of the concept. In May, Netanyahu threw his weight behind a version drafted by Yariv Levin (Likud) and Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home). That, too, met with criticism from Livni, because it allegedly put more emphasis on the country’s Jewish character than its democratic one. The current legislation, however, is seen as even more stringent.
This time, it is the timing of the bill that Livni is decrying. At the request of Science and Technology Minister Jacob Perry (Yesh Atid), she postponed the vote, accepting his argument that “The explosive situation that exists in the Arab sector at the moment has already led to violent clashes and casualties. A discussion on the ‘Nationality Law’ at this time is irresponsible.”
In defending the bill, Netanyahu said, “The Jewish aspect of the state finds expression in its being the one and only national state of the Jewish People, with a flag, national anthem and the right of the Jewish People to come here. The balance between these two facets is necessary, both to balance our judicial system, which certainly recognizes the democratic aspect, and now needs to also recognize the aspect of our being the national state of the Jewish people.”
MK Elkin also explained his position. “The leaders of the State of Israel saw Israel being a Jewish state as a basic principle, equal to democracy as a basic principle. Since the days of Supreme Court Judge Aharon Barak’s Constitutional Revolution, the Supreme Court has systematically relinquishes Jewish national interest in favor of the democratic interest. The bill proposal was made to restore the balance and the equality between these two mechanisms in accordance with the classic Zionist perception.”
Opposition MKs, however, were furious.
The Balad party claimed the bill aimed to institutionalize racism in Israel. “The aim of those submitting the proposal is to make their racism and discrimination the law, and create two classes: equal civil officials (Jews) and less equal (Arabs). This is an extremely dangerous move that could finally establish a Jewish majority control of the Arab minority and pave the way for the enactment of racist and discriminatory laws against Arab citizens without judicial review.”
Likewise, the Hadash party saw the bill as inflammatory. “The advancement of the bill proposal is happening during days in which tension between Jews and Arabs in Israel is at its peak. This is a provocative initiative aimed to overpass democratic principles by the Jewish elite of the country. Instead of advancing dialogue and equality, Netanyahu and his partners continue to advance provocation and inflammation.”
Leaving the matter for the final minutes of the committee meeting, Livni offered by way of explanation the fact that similar bills had been proposed in the past, and must be debated by representatives of all coalition parties. She cited the Gavison-Meidan Accord for cooperation between religious and secular parties. “Passing this law today may impede that [cooperative] process. I am using my authority to put off the debate,” she said.
When accused of “sabotaging the work of the committee” by several right-wing MKs, Livni stormed out of the meeting, declaring it over. Netanyahu then promised to transfer the debate from the ministerial committee to the Knesset plenum, effectively taking it out of Livni’s hands.
The Basic Law is Israel’s version of a constitution. Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People would legislate the identity of the State of Israel as outlined in its Declaration of Independence.