The cabinet voted in favor of the controversial "Jewish state bill," with the preceding discussion descended into a shouting match between ministers on Sunday.
“People ask who needs this bill; we have managed 66 years without it,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said ahead of the meeting. “And I ask, who needs the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, we managed 45 years without it. We need both,” he said. “Israel is a Jewish democratic state. There are those who want democracy to take precedence over Judaism, and those who want Judaism to take precedence over democracy. In the law that I am bringing, both principles are equal and must be given equal consideration.”
Netanyahu said Israel is the national home of the Jewish people where there are equal rights for every citizen. “But there are national rights only for the Jewish people; a flag, anthem, the right of every Jew to immigrate to Israel, and other national symbols,” he said.
The prime minister said this law was needed at this time because many people are challenging the idea that Israel is the national homeland of the Jewish people.
“The Palestinians refuse to recognize this, and there is also opposition from within – there are those who want to establish autonomy in the Galilee and the Negev, and who deny our national rights,” he said. “I also don't understand those who call for two states for two peoples, but at the same time oppose anchoring that in law. They are quick to recognize a Palestinian national home, but adamantly oppose a Jewish national home.”
The cabinet authorized three versions of the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People with 15 votes in favor and six opposed – Netanyahu's, as well as versions by coalition chairman Ze'ev Elkin (Likud) and by MKs Yariv Levin (Likud), Ayelet Shaked (Bayit Yehudi) and Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beytenu), which will go to a preliminary vote in the Knesset Wednesday. Then, the bills will go to a Knesset committee, where they will be combined in accordance with Netanyahu's draft.
"I brought the principles of the law in which I believe, the principles that appear in the Independence Scroll," Netanyahu stated.
Netanyahu’s version of the legislation is very similar to the Elkin and Levin-Shaked-Ilatov initiatives, in that they focus on Israel as the site of self-determination for the Jewish people, but it avoids some of the more controversial articles of the private member bills, such as the status of Arabic or settlement construction.
Just as the Elkin and Levin- Shaked-Ilatov versions do, the prime minister’s proposal reinforces the “Hatikva” as the national anthem, the state symbols, use of the Hebrew calendar and the Law of Return, and to grant freedom of access to holy places and protect them.
Netanyahu addressed threats and ultimatums by his coalition partners to break up the government over this and other issues, saying “the country cannot be run in this manner."
"We need to focus on strengthening security in the face of waves of Islamic extremism and the danger of a nuclear Iran, on strengthening Israel's economy and the citizens' welfare, and not with threats," he said. "I hope the heads of the coalition parties will unite and act in this spirit."
Despite Netanyahu's warnings, the discussion before the vote was marked by shouting and raucous arguing that could be heard from outside the closed-door meeting.
Sources in the meeting said Netanyahu said this is not a time for weakness and hypocrisy, and Finance Minister Yair Lapid replied that not everyone who disagrees with the prime minister is weak.
"If you had behaved differently, then we would not have gotten to this situation," Netanyahu said to Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. "You didn't act like this when it came to other bills."
Livni asked if he was "talking about the newspaper again," meaning a bill she supported that was meant to shut down the pro-Netanyahu newspaper "Israel Hayom
Later in the meeting, Livni once again referred to the "Israel Hayom
bill," saying: "If all this nonsense is just for revenge, then you won. Now let's talk about substance before you destroy the country."
"Let's talk about the elephant in the room. You want us" – Hatnua and Yesh Atid – "to vote against this so you can fire us," Livni said.
Netanyahu banged on the table and said "it cannot be that Arabs can live in Jewish towns, but Jews can't live in Arab towns. A country within a country is developing."
Construction Minister Uri Ariel accused Livni of trying to sabotage the "Jewish state bill," calling it a step in the right direction that will ensure the High Court doesn't interpret the law differently than the lawmakers intended, as there is a continued erosion of Israel's Jewish identity.
Science, Technology and Space Minister Ya'acov Peri, a vocal opponent of the bill, said it reminded him of Israel's greatest enemies that have Sha'ria law, while Education Minister Shai Piron told the prime minister he does not decide who is nationalist and who is not.
After the ministers approved the bill, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett pointed out that the vote was in keeping with coalition agreements.
In addition, Bennett posited that the "Jewish state bill" will "save the residents of south Tel Aviv from infiltrators," because the High Court will have to keep it in mind when ruling on the legality of laws to curb illegal migration and not only Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty.
Before the meeting, Lapid said while he is not against the concept of a "Jewish state bill," Netanyahu's version is "terrible and badly written, meant only for his needs in the Likud primary [in January]."
According to Lapid, first prime minister David Ben-Gurion, first Likud prime minister Menachem Begin and Likud ideological forebear Ze'ev Jabotinsky would have all opposed the measure.
Lapid recounted speaking with the family of Zidan Sayef, the Border Police officer who was killed defending Jewish worshippers in the Jerusalem synagogue massacre last week.
"What will we tell them, that [Sayef] is a second-rate citizen?" he asked.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Labor) compared the "Jewish state bill" to holding a cabinet meeting on the Temple Mount, saying it is provocative, irresponsible and unnecessary at a sensitive time.
"If the Independence Scroll was enough when we were only 600,000 people, why is it not enough for Netanyahu today?" Herzog asked. "Only a prime minister lacking in self-confidence, without a vision and a plan, needs laws that deal with the obvious that will not improve any Israeli citizens' lives."
Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Committee chairman Yoel Razbozov said the bill is discriminatory against those with Jewish ancestry who fell under the Law of Return, but are not Jewish.
"I will do everything so the current version of the bill does not pass," he stated. "For years, the half-million non-Jewish immigrants and their families were discriminated against in the State of Israel, because they cannot get married like everyone else, be buried like everyone else and live in the Jewish State like everyone else. The Government of Israel should not ignore them and should not authorize the 'Jewish state bill' until an appropriate wording is found."
MK Ahmed Tibi (UAL-Ta'al) said the bill continues the alienation of the Arab public and the rejection of their rights as a minority native to the land.
According to Tibi, Israel is now "officially an ethnocentric country that persecutes its minority and discriminates against it using a Basic Law. We will bring this to every international platform, including the UN."
MK Dov Hanin (Hadash) said instead of fighting discrimination against Israeli-Arabs, he is passing a law perpetuating it.
"Instead of lending a hand in dialogue with Arab citizens of Israel, Netanyahu chose to provoke and add fuel to the fire. Instead of working toward historic reconciliation with the Palestinian people, Netanyahu is blocking any progress toward an agreement. Instead of building a future of life and equality, Netanyahu is leading to conflict and tragedy," Hanin stated.JPost.com Staff contributed to this report.