Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition appeared to be unraveling after the cabinet approved legislation giving legal weight to Israel’s Jewish character Sunday.
During the heated discussion of the “Jewish state bill” in the cabinet, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni said to Netanyahu: “The elephant in the room is that you want us” – Hatnua and Yesh Atid – “to vote against this so you can fire us.”
Later, Livni said she will not contribute to the measure – which she called anti-democratic – passing in a preliminary vote Wednesday. However, when asked directly in an interview on Channel 2 News, she did not commit to voting against it, which means she may abstain and save her spot in the coalition.
Finance Minister Yair Lapid also said he and his party would not vote for the controversial bill.
“Yesh Atid is not against a ‘Jewish State bill,’ just not this ‘Jewish State bill,’” he said at a conference in Tel Aviv University.
“This is a bill that puts the Jewish state before democracy and separates the two.
[First prime minister David] Ben-Gurion and [first Likud prime minister] Menachem Begin and [Likud ideological forebear Ze’ev] Jabotinsky wouldn’t have allowed this bill. It is an anti-democratic bill and neither I nor Yesh Atid will vote for it as submitted.”
If a minister votes against government policy, it is akin to him or her resigning, and the prime minister can fire him or her.
The three proposed versions of Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People – which were authorized by the coalition with 15 in favor and six opposed – declare Israel to be the site of self-determination exclusively for the Jewish people. Netanyahu’s version avoids some of the more controversial sections of the two similar private member bills, such as the status of Arabic or settlement construction.
“Jewish state bill” drafts by coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud) and by MKs Yariv Levin (Likud), Ayelet Shaked (Bayit Yehudi) and Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beytenu) 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.
All three versions of the bill reinforce “Hatikva” as the national anthem, the state symbols, use of the Hebrew calendar and the Law of Return, and call to grant freedom of access to holy places and protect them.
“People ask, Who needs this bill? We have managed 66 years without it,” 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.
“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.
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 prime minister said.
”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.”
“I brought the principles of the law in which I believe, the principles that appear in the Independence Scroll,” Netanyahu stated.
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 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 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 is nonsense, is just for revenge, then you won. Now let’s talk about substance before you destroy the country.”
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 of Justice 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 Yaakov Peri, a vocal opponent of the bill, said that it reminded him of Israel’s greatest enemies, which have Shari’a law, while Education Minister Shai Piron told the prime minister he does not decide who is patriotic 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 of Justice 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 that 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].”
Lapid recounted speaking with the family of Zidan Saif, the Druse police officer who was killed defending Jewish worshipers in the Jerusalem synagogue massacre last week.
“What will we tell them, that [Saif] 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 (Yesh Atid) 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, as 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 Henin (Hadash) said that instead of fighting discrimination against Israeli Arabs, the prime minister 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,” Henin stated.
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