'Jewish State bill' agitates shaky coalition

Livni, Peri block controversial Likud legislation hours after PM openly backed it; Bennett plans to vote against all Hatnua, Yesh Atid initiatives.

Netanyahu and Livni (photo credit: REUTERS)
Netanyahu and Livni
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The coalition went into crisis on Sunday, with each party pulling in a different direction after Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnua) postponed at the last minute the Ministerial Committee for Legislation’s vote on an initiative to give Israel’s status as a Jewish state legal weight.
Livni maintained the legislation would undermine democracy, hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed support for the bill.
Following the delay, Netanyahu vowed to bring the measure to the full cabinet for a vote.
“Israel is the nation of the Jewish people. This is an important matter of principle for the future of the Jewish people in the State of Israel,” he said.
Earlier on Sunday, at the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu came out in favor of the proposal.
“The judiciary, which recognizes Israel’s democratic side, will also have to recognize that Israel is the nationstate of the Jewish people,” he said.
“In the end, we will make it clear that Israel is the Jewish nation-state, while promising equal rights to all its citizens,” the prime minister said, adding that the bill will have to undergo many changes.
Livni, the chairwoman of Hatnua, said she postponed the bill at the behest of Science, Technology and Space Minister Yaakov Peri (Yesh Atid), because there are still more proposals coming up on the topic. She emphasized that the process is ongoing and that decisions regarding the bill will be made with the participation of every member of the coalition.
“I will not give up on democracy,” Livni said. “I will continue to fight for Israel to be both the Jewish state and a democracy. That is the basis of Zionism, as is written in the Independence Scroll, and that is what will be.”
During the Ministerial Committee for Legislation meeting, she waved the panel’s regulations in front of its members, telling them to “read the rules,” and that she could postpone any vote she wants.
Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud) and Construction Minister Uri Ariel (Bayit Yehudi) shouted that Livni was being unfair, with the latter calling her decision “sabotage.”
In response to Livni’s actions, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett said his Bayit Yehudi party will not support any bills submitted by Hatnua and Yesh Atid, unless the “Jewish state bill” gets ministerial approval as a government bill.
A senior Bayit Yehudi source called Livni’s behavior unfair and in violation of the coalition agreement, and said that meant Bennett’s party is no longer committed to the agreement, either.
Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) later said in interviews on Channels 2 and 10 that he does not oppose the idea of a “Jewish state bill,” just this particular one.
He also confirmed that Peri and Livni made a deal in advance not to bring proposal to a vote.
Coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin (Likud), who proposed the bill, said: “It is clear that Livni will not shy away from any dirty trick to stop [the proposal] from passing.
She knew that there was a clear majority for the bill and therefore, in an aggressive move, decided to end the meeting and prevent a vote.”
Elkin added that none of Livni’s “tricks” will stop the bill from becoming law, because there is a clear majority “that is not ashamed of Zionism,” and that the justice minister showed her true face and is willing to do anything to prevent anchoring in law that Israel is the Jewish state.
Elkin’s “Jewish state bill” is one of several incarnations of proposed constitutional provisions meant to define Israel’s national character in recent years.
The bills are not only declarative; they seek to give the High Court of Justice something to consider when making rulings, in addition to democracy, as they would be basic laws, which the court gives constitutional standing.
When one of the versions of the bill was brought to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation in 2013, Livni, who opposed it on grounds that it puts Jewishness before democracy, decided to form a committee led by Hebrew University law professor Ruth Gavison to draft a basic law defining Israel’s Jewishness, but more than a year later, it has not yielded any results.
Elkin’s version of the legislation, which is nearly identical to the one he co-sponsored with then-Kadima MK Avi Dichter in the previous Knesset, is considered more stringent than the one submitted by MKs Yariv Levin (Likud), Ayelet Shaked (Bayit Yehudi) and Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beytenu), and even more so than Yesh Atid MK Ruth Calderon’s contribution to the “Jewish state” debate, which would have essentially passed the Independence Scroll as a basic law.
The legislation states: “The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people in which it realizes its hope for self-determination according to its traditional and historic heritage,” and that “the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”
Though critics of the bill say it puts Israel’s Jewishness before democracy, the bill declares that “the State of Israel has a democratic regime.” In addition, there are 11 basic laws detailing features of Israeli democracy, whereas this would be the only one dealing with its Jewishness.
The bill states that all citizens, regardless of religion or nationality, have equal individual rights, including the ability to preserve their heritage.
One of the more controversial aspects of the legislation is that it states that Hebrew is the official language of the state, whereas Arabic has a “special status” and Arabophones have the right to access to all governmental services in their language. While critics of the bill say that it is advancing Hebrew over Arabic, the former has always been the State of Israel’s official language, while the latter was only an official language under the British Mandate and its status remained legally vague since then.
Another divisive article is that the government will work toward “Jewish settlement in its land and allocate resources to this goal,” as well as one stating that Jewish law should be an inspiration for lawmakers and judges.
In addition, the bill states that holy places must be protected from “anything that could harm the freedom of access by religions to the places that are sacred to them or to their sentiments toward those places.” This could support assertions that Jews should be allowed to pray on the Temple Mount.
The proposal also states that “Hatikva” is the national anthem, that the Jewish calendar is the official one, that Jewish schools will teach Jewish history and tradition, that every Jew has the right to move to Israel, and that the government will strengthen ties with the Jewish Diaspora, as well as describing the Israeli flag and the state symbol.
Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal- On said that Netanyahu’s support for the bill, which she called “a crime against democracy,” shows he thinks that a Jewish state is an extreme nationalist one in which the law backs racism.
“This bill subordinates the democratic regime and the judiciary to Jewish nationalism a la Elkin, by declaring that Arabic is not an official language, that new laws must be in the spirit of ‘Jewish law’ and that the state will promote Jewish settlement but is not required to build for other nationalities that live here,” she said.
Gal-On added that the prime minister should be trying to calm the atmosphere following the rioting and terrorists attacks by Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in recent days, but that he is trying to pander to the right wing in the Likud ahead of party’s leadership primary next month.
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.