Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu pledged on Thursday to promote a Knesset basic law defining Israel as a Jewish state, telling critics they cannot demand Jerusalem withdraw from the West Bank to protect the country’s Jewish identity, and then be unwilling to recognize that Jewish identity.
Proponents of a two-state solution – including everyone from US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid – consistently argue that the only way Israel can remain a Jewish and democratic state is if it withdraws from most of Judea and Samaria and establishes a Palestinian state.
But if that is the case, Netanyahu said, it is “astonishing” to him why there should be any opposition to recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.
“One cannot favor the establishment of a Palestinian nation-state in order to maintain the Jewish character of the State of Israel and – at the same time – oppose recognizing that the State of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish People,” he said. “Supporting the establishment of a Palestinian nation-state and opposing the recognition of the Jewish nation-state undermines – over the long-term – the State of Israel’s very right to exist.”
Speaking five days before Independence Day in the Tel Aviv hall where David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s statehood 66 years ago, the prime minister said the country’s Declaration of Independence set the Jewish identity of the state as “the cornerstone in the life of the country.”
In a clear reference to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian leadership, Netanyahu said it is regretfully evident that “there are those who do not recognize this natural right.
They seek to undermine the historical, moral and legal justification for the existence of the State of Israel as the nation-state of our people.”
Netanyahu, who has been blasted by some on the Left over the years – at home and abroad – for “artificially” making the Jewish nature of the state an issue, said he viewed bolstering the “status of Israel as the nation-state of our people” as one of his primary aims as prime minister.
For this reasons, he said, he intended to submit a draft basic law to the Knesset that would provide a constitutional anchor for Israel’s status.
“The State of Israel will always preserve full personal and civil equality for all its citizens, Jews and non-Jews alike, in a Jewish and democratic state,” he said, just days after Kerry warned that if a two-state solution was not achieved, Israel could become an apartheid state.
The prime minister, who has refrained from commenting on Kerry’s remarks, said that in Israel personal and civil equality is ensured for all, something that sets it apart “in the large expanse of the Middle East, and even beyond.”
The bill Netanyahu pledged to push forward – Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, nicknamed the “Nationality Bill” – has come out in several versions in recent years, but Netanyahu threw his support behind coalition chairman Yariv Levin (Likud Beytenu) and Bayit Yehudi faction chairwoman Ayelet Shaked’s version, instructing Levin to push the legislation through without delay.
The Levin and Shaked bill declares that “the State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish People, where they realize their aspiration for self-determination according to their cultural and historical legacy.”
According to the measure, “the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People.”
The legislation features sections on the flag, anthem and symbol of Israel, and reinforces the Law of Return.
Unlike previous versions of the bill, this one does not deal with the official status of Arabic.
However, it defines the Land of Israel as “the historic homeland of the Jewish People and the place where the State of Israel is founded,” giving legal status to the historic Land of Israel.
It calls Israel a democratic state “based on the foundations of liberty, justice and peace according to the visions of the prophets of Israel, and committed to the personal rights of all its citizens as detailed in every Basic Law.”
Still, the language mentions personal rights for all citizens – as opposed to national rights – making it clear that only the Jewish People have the right to statehood in the Land of Israel.
Another article of the bill could change the situation on the Temple Mount, as it declares that “holy sites will be protected from desecration and from anything preventing free access for all religions who consider the sites holy.”
Levin and Shaked submitted their bill months after the 19th Knesset was inaugurated in 2013, but Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnua) blocked it on the grounds that it puts Jewishness before democracy. Livni then appointed law professor Ruth Gavison to come up with her own version of the bill, which Gavison has yet to complete.
Livni responded to Netanyahu’s statements on Thursday, saying she will “in no way allow democratic values to be weakened or put below Jewish values, because that is the meaning of the Declaration of Independence and the basis of our existence.”
The justice minister added that she appointed Gavison with Netanyahu’s approval, although the Prime Minister’s Office denied that claim in the past.
According to Levin, Netanyahu’s support for the bill is “a historic decision that will bring Israel back to the path of Zionism after years of the legal system harming the basic values upon which the state was founded.”
Shaked said Netanyahu’s backing was a clear statement that Israel would remain the state of the Jewish People by right, and not because the world was doing Israel a favor.
“I hope the legislative process will be thorough and productive, and I invite any organization or interested person to take part in the committee meetings,” she added.
The opposition warned that the bill could hurt minority populations.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Labor) said his party unequivocally supported Israel as a Jewish state, pointing out that Labor’s forebear, Mapai, built up the country, and its leaders wrote the 1948 Declaration of Independence, which already declared Israel as both Jewish and democratic.
“Unfortunately, Netanyahu’s diplomatic failures will lead to the loss of the Jewish majority and turn Israel into a binational state. No law can cover up that unfortunate fact,” Herzog said.
Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal-On said the bill was declarative and would not help Israel stay Jewish as long as the government continued building settlements.
“There are non-Jewish citizens in Israel, too, and therefore, the country needs to define itself as the Jewish state and a state of all its citizens,” she said.
“Whoever supports two states supports giving sovereignty to the Palestinians and asks the Palestinians to recognize Israeli sovereignty, but not the character of the country.”
MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta’al) said Netanyahu was “neurotically trying to reduce the democratic space in the country and emphasize its Jewishness by embarrassingly twisting history.”
“No basic law in or out of the Knesset can cancel the fact that this land is our national homeland, in which we were born and survived after the Nakba, and in which we live while unsuccessfully battling to be equal citizens,” Tibi said, referring to the country’s Arab population.