President Reuven Rivlin (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R).
(photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO/REUTERS)
President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sparred over the controversial “Jewish state” bill on Tuesday, in a dispute that could force Netanyahu to keep his squabbling coalition together.
Rivlin, who has repeatedly spoken out against advancing the next election, will decide who will form the next government.
His strong criticism of the “Jewish state” bill could persuade Netanyahu that it is not an issue on which to initiate an election.
“What is the point of this bill?” Rivlin asked on Tuesday evening at the annual Conference of the Attorney-General’s Office in Eilat. “Does this proposal not in fact raise questions about the success of the Zionist enterprise? Does this bill not in fact play into the hands of those who seek to slander us? Into the very hands of those who wish to show that even among us, there are those who see contradiction between our being a free people in our land, and the freedoms of the non-Jewish communities in our midst?”
Without mentioning the prime minister by name, Rivlin referred to Netanyahu’s repeated assertions that the legislation was necessary to target steps by the international community that would try to take away Israel’s Jewish character.
“Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people with freedom in its land,” Rivlin said.
“Those who cast doubt on that in and outside [of Israel] are few and are abhorred.”
By contrast, during a meeting with Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka in the capital earlier on Tuesday, Netanyahu said that while the country’s democratic character was ensured, what was being challenged constantly was it being the nation-state of the Jewish people.
“For that reason we will anchor in law the national rights of the Jewish people, alongside with assurances of the personal rights of each citizen,” he said. “That combination is what is important, and what I will promote in the principles of this law. We will continue to do this to make clear the fact that Israel is a Jewish democratic state.”
Responding to critics both domestic and abroad claiming that the “Jewish state” legislation would water down the country’s democratic character, Netanyahu said recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people was the basis of any peace accord.
“Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people,” he said.
“Israel is an exemplary democratic country – that is the way it was and the way it will be. A country that anchors personal equal rights for each of its citizens.”
Speaking after the US State Department criticized the “Jewish state” bill by saying it expected Israel “to continue its commitment to democratic principles,” Netanyahu said he did not know a more vibrant, democratic country in the world, “certainly not in our region.”
Other politicians criticized the State Department’s condemnation of the bill more directly. Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett told Army Radio that “in the end it’s our problem, and I don’t think anyone has the right to interfere.”
Former foreign minister Moshe Arens (Likud) told the Voice of Israel website that just as “Israel shouldn’t butt in” to American affairs, it was “not in the best interests of the US to get involved” in an internal Israeli issue.
Current Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu) defended the US, saying it was not right to criticize America because of the support it gave Israel. Referring to the fight in the coalition over the “Jewish state” bill, Liberman said an early election should be the last resort.
“It is clear that the last thing we need right now is an election,” he told Army Radio. “An election will effectively shut down the entire governmental system for six months.”
In a move that may indicate that the next election will take place in 2015, Netanyahu agreed to initiate another Likud leadership race if a general election were not held within nine months of the January 6 party primary. He agreed to the move on Tuesday at an internal Likud court, in a compromise with his competition in the race, MK Moshe Feiglin.
Netanyahu faced criticism at Tuesday’s Sderot Conference for Society from both inside and outside his coalition.
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnua) said the “Jewish state” bill “throws the Declaration of Independence in the garbage.” Opposition leader Isaac Herzog said that "only a prime minister who lacks confidence needs a Jewish state bill to justify himself." Herzog reiterated his calls for Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid to quit Netanyahu's coalition.
"Stop playing a double game," he told Lapid. "You are Netanyahu's top senior partner and you can't attack the government because you are a central part of it."