Israel : Vote on ‘Jewish State’ bill postponed, cooling government coalition crisis

Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to the weekly cabinet meeting in JerusalemBenjamin Netanyahu arrives to the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem

A potential coalition crisis appears to have been at least temporarily averted with a Knesset vote on the controversial Nationality Bill postponed until next week.

Two versions of the bill have been proposed, both enshrining Israel’s status as a Jewish State but in a way which critics say would denigrate Israel’s minority communities.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has drafted what is viewed as a more consensus driven, moderate set of principles on the issue.

Nonetheless, coalition factions Yesh Atid and Hatnuah have opposed all versions of the bill and a fractious cabinet meeting on Sunday raised speculation that the government could fall, sparking new elections.

Such a prospect seems to have been quelled for the time being, as it was agreed that a Knesset vote on the Nationality Bill will be postponed until next week following mediation by Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman.

Hatnuah leader Tzipi Livni told the Jerusalem Post, “No compromise has been reached … It has just been postponed.” However, the coalition factions are expected to meet during the coming days to attempt to broker an agreement over the bill. Coalition chairman and Likud MK Zeev Elkin, who himself sponsored one version of the bill, said, “[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu doesn’t want elections, but he is not ready to accept the coalition partners behaviour as it has been.”

Meanwhile, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid warned “We won’t compromise on our values for political horse trading.”

What legislation has been proposed?

On Sunday 23 November, after a heated debate which deeply divided the coalition, the Israeli Cabinet voted to bring to the Knesset a bill entitled ‘Basic Law: Israel – the National State of the Jewish People’ which would define the Jewish and democratic character of the state.

In a confusing political process, multiple version of the same bill, proposed by Knesset members on the right of the coalition, were voted on by the cabinet. However, it was agreed that the official government version would be a more consensual draft to be based on principles outlined by Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Netanyahu’s proposed draft defines its objective as “Defining the State of Israel as the national state of the Jewish People, and anchoring the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in the spirit of the principles of the Declaration of Independence.” It goes on to state that the right of national self-determination is unique to the Jewish people in the State of Israel, whilst also stating that, the state, “upholds the individual rights of all its citizens according to law”. The bill states that Israel will cultivate Jewish culture and heritage whilst also stating that, “The State will act to enable all residents of Israel, regardless of religion, race or nationality, to preserve their culture, heritage, language and identity.”

It commits Israel to assist Jews in distress, and also formally defines Israel’s flag, anthem and national holidays. With respect to Jewish law, it states only very vaguely that “Jewish law shall serve as a source of inspiration for the Knesset.”

The more controversial versions of the bill which will apparently not be taken forward, include clauses which define Hebrew as Israel’s sole national language to the detriment of Arabic, enhance the influence of Jewish law on court decisions and legislation, and appear to subordinate the democratic character of the state to that of its Jewish character.

What are the political motivations involved?

Two centrist parties in the coalition, Yesh Atid led by Yair Lapid, and Hatnua led by Tzipi Livni, have said they will not support hard line versions of the bill which would harm Israeli democracy, even if it means the collapse of the government.

Though Yesh Atid would likely accept a more moderate version based on the principles outline by the Prime Minister, it is not clear if Tzipi Livni’s faction will. Critics have argued that the legislation is completely unnecessary and ill-timed, given the current high level of tensions between Jews and Arabs after a series of terror attacks.

Prime Minister Netanyahu argues that it is necessary to establish in law that Israel’s Jewish and democratic characters should be of equal weight, and also to respond to Palestinians and others who deny Jewish national rights.

The debate has to be seen in the context of domestic political rivalry, with a fracturing coalition and growing expectation of new elections.

The row provides an opportunity for parties and parliamentarians on the right to prove their nationalist credentials, and to paint their centrist rivals as weak or disloyal. This feeds on the current heightened levels of tension in the country after a series of terror attacks.

It is just one example of legislation which is dividing the current coalition, with budgetary and economic measures being proposed by Yair Lapid being opposed by other parties in the government.

In what sense is Israel ‘Jewish’ today?

Most Israeli Jews want to preserve Israel’s character as it is today, as both democratic and Jewish. Israel today is ‘Jewish’ in the sense that it has a 75 per cent Jewish majority, allows that majority to express the universal legal right to national self-determination, and is open to Jews who wish to immigrate. This is no different to most other states which express the right of the ethnic majority to self-determination, whilst still protecting the rights of minorities.

Reference to a ‘Jewish state’ does not mean a state based on religious precepts, or a state which discriminates against non-Jews.

All Israelis today – both the 75 per cent Jewish majority and non-Jewish minorities – enjoy equal rights before the law and freedom of religion. Non-Jewish minorities enjoy collective rights in education, language and religion.

Existing basic laws in Israel defines Israel as “a Jewish and democratic state” and enshrine in law that: “Fundamental human rights in Israel are founded upon recognition of the value of the human being, the sanctity of human life, and the principle that all persons are free … in the spirit of the principles set forth in the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel.” Discrimination based on religious or ethnic identity is illegal.

In Israel’s May 1948 Declaration of Independence, Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion declared the establishment of: “A Jewish State in Eretz-Israel [the Land of Israel], to be known as the State of Israel,” which would ensure “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex,” and “will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”

What is the historical background?

The State of Israel was admitted to the United Nations in May 1949, after declaring its independence as a Jewish state when the British Mandate ended in May 1948.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence as a Jewish state came after the United Nations General Assembly approved in November 1947, with a two-thirds majority, a plan to partition British Mandatory Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. The proposal was accepted by the Jews but rejected by the Arabs, who then launched the 1947-48 Arab-Israeli War.

The British government committed to support “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” in the 1917 Balfour Declaration. This goal received international legal sanction under the League of Nations Mandate granted to Britain in 1922, which gave recognition to, “the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.”

The founder of modern political Zionism Theodore Herzl launched the modern political movement of Zionism with a pamphlet published in 1896 entitled Der Judenstaat (The State of the Jews). Following many centuries of anti-Semitic persecution in Europe, he and most other Zionist leaders envisaged a secular, democratic, Jewish majority state in which non-Jews would live as full and equal citizens.

BICOM, the British Israel Communications and Research Centre contributed to this Update.