Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s faced a challenge to his power Tuesday, when President Reuven Rivlin, the attorney- general’s office, and Knesset legal adviser joined forces to fight his flagship legislation, the Jewish Nation-State bill.
Rivlin wrote a letter to MKs criticizing a section of the bill that says, “The state may allow a community, including members of one religion or of one nationality, to maintain a separate communal settlement.”
The president warned that the clause may “harm the Jewish people, Jews throughout the world and the State of Israel.”
In a committee meeting on the bill at the Knesset, Deputy Attorney-General Raz Nizri backed up the president, saying that the bill would “not accomplish anything while causing only damage to Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state.
Nizri issued what he called an emotional plea to the bill’s supporters to remove the controversial clause.
“This clause could stain a bill that is intended to define Israel as a Jewish state and would result in the courts overturning it,” Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon said, warning that the bill “sanctions discrimination” and could be used to prevent not just Arabs from joining a community but also other minorities.
Channel 2 quoted Likud sources Tuesday night saying that the controversial clause would likely be replaced by a clause merely saying that Israel supports Jewish settlement.
The Jewish nation-state bill is a draft Basic Law with constitutional heft that declares Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. It would anchor in law the state’s menorah emblem, Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, national holidays and the right of all Israeli residents to preserve their heritage without consideration of religion and nationality.
It would make Hebrew the official language of the state, with Arabic receiving a “unique status.”
The head of the committee legislating the bill, Likud MK Amir Ohana, said it was wrong of the president to intervene in a political matter, saying in English: “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
He pointed out that one of the communities that has tried to block Arabs from moving there is Kfar Vradim, which voted overwhelmingly for Left of Center parties in the last Knesset election.
“Those who say the bill is racist must also consider Zionism racism, and it’s not racism but the response to racism,” he told the committee.
The bill’s sponsor, Likud MK Avi Dichter, defended it, saying: “The president is incorrect.
What the bill says is that even the majority has rights in Israel, even the Jews. The bill will only strengthen the Zionist vision.”
Likud MK Oren Hazan went further, accusing Rivlin of opposing the bill out of “hatred for the prime minister.”
But Likud MK Bennie Begin called the legislation “an ugly bill” and vowed to draft enough coalition MKs to prevent it from passing. One possibility is to draft the opposition of coalition MKs from the Former Soviet Union who represent constituents deemed not Jewish by the state.
Zionist Union MK Tzipi Livni got thrown of the meeting for defending Rivlin too many times when it was not her turn to speak. She read the Declaration of Independence and warned that the bill contradicted it.
“I have persuaded BDS activists that Israel is not apartheid, but if this bill passes, I won’t be able to do that anymore,” said Yesh Atid MK Pnina Tamnu- Shata. “Today, the BDS is celebrating.”
Joint List MK Yousef Jabareen compared the bill to Jim Crow Laws in the United States of Separate but Equal and complained that Israel did not learn anything from history.
“This bill will lead to expelling Arabs,” warned Joint List MK Jamal Zahalka. He urged United Torah Judaism MKs to prevent the bill’s passage. UTJ MKs opposed the bill but may now support it after making a deal with Likud that changed a clause in the bill about the Diaspora.
The old version of the bill said “the state will take action to maintain the connection between the state and the Jewish people wherever they are.”
The new version released Monday replaced “wherever they are” with “in the Diaspora.”
UTJ MKs said they requested the change, because they did not want the state to help Diaspora Jews advance religious pluralism in Israel in general and at the Western Wall in particular.
MKs Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) and Livni asked Nizri for his legal opinion on the clause. He responded that it could be read in different ways.
The head of the Reform Movement in Israel, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, told the committee that he would lead Jewish groups around the world in opposition to the Diaspora clause.
Reuben Shalom of the World Zionist Organization also criticized the clause, telling the committee that the bill must help Diaspora Jews in Israel, too. He says the bill should say that the connection between Israel and Diaspora must go in both directions.
Ohana concluded the meeting by saying that MKs had until Wednesday evening to submit amendments, which would be discussed by the committee on Thursday and voted on Monday in the committee.
The bill is expected to come to a final vote in the Knesset plenum Monday night.
Jonathan Weber Rosen contributed to this report.
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