Striking a balance

A government bill that seeks to anchor in law Israel’s status as a Jewish state is causing quite a fuss.

Binyamin Netanyahu (photo credit: REUTERS)
Binyamin Netanyahu
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A government bill that seeks to anchor in law Israel’s status as a Jewish state is causing quite a fuss. On Sunday, the measure was slated to come up for a vote in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation. But at the last minute, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who strongly opposes the bill, exercised her powers as chairwoman of the committee to postpone the vote indefinitely.
“I will not give up on democracy,” Livni said in explaining her decision to bury the legislation. “I will continue to fight for Israel to be both the Jewish state and a democracy.
That is the basis of Zionism, as written in the Independence Scroll, and that is what will be.”
Livni, who is also head of Hatnua, received backing from Yesh Atid’s Yaakov Peri, the minister of science, technology and space, who argued that holding the vote now, at a time when tensions are high between Jewish and Arab citizens, could lead to a further deterioration in relations.
In response, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who strongly backs the bill, announced that he would bypass the committee chaired by Livni and move the bill to the full cabinet for a vote on government backing.
Meanwhile, Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett vowed that as long as Hatnua and Yesh Atid refuse to allow the ministers to vote on whether the government should back the “Jewish state bill,” his party would oppose any bills submitted by them.
It would be best to pass a law that strikes the right balance between Israel’s Jewish and democratic dimensions.
Civil marriage and divorce, the Law of Return, limiting business activity on Shabbat, restricting the import of non-kosher meat, allocating land to Arab citizens and the continued funding of religious services via the Chief Rabbinate are all highly divisive issues.
The present bill, however, does not deal with any of these issues directly. Its main goal seems to be to provide the courts with legislative justification for giving weight to the uniquely Jewish character of the State of Israel over and above the state’s democratic character.
Since the bill, if passed, would become a basic law, it would have quasi-constitutional weight. This would mean that High Court of Justice decisions such as the landmark Qaadan v. Katzir ruling could be overturned.
In the March 2000 decision, the justices ruled that a communal town in the North called Katzir could not discriminate against Arab Israelis such as the Qaadan family in land allocation. The state had allocated land to the Jewish Agency to establish Katzir, a town that was to be Jewish-only. But the High Court ruled that Arab Israelis must be allowed to acquire land there on the basis of the democratic principle of equality. If the state is defined in law as uniquely “Jewish,” perhaps this discrimination against the Qaadans would become legal.
Since the establishment of the state, attempts have been made to reach a consensus on the balance between Israel’s Jewish and democratic dimensions. None of these attempts succeeded. This is one of the reasons Israel has no constitution. Indeed, David Ben-Gurion and other founders of the state purposely left the precise definition of Israel’s Jewishness vague in order to avoid confrontations between religious and secular, Jew and Arab.
Now, Netanyahu is rousing old conflicts by pushing this bill. And he is doing it at a time when the government coalition is already being torn apart by infighting and political rivalries over the draft 2005 state budget and the stalled peace negotiations. His stubbornness is inexplicable unless he is interested in an early election.
Few, if any, members of the coalition have an interest in an early election. But these political crises often take on a dynamic of their own.
An early election is not in Israel’s interest either. The cost would be enormous, not only in direct expenditures, but also in the accompanying economic and political paralysis. Entering into election mode now, without a 2015 budget, would undermine Israel’s reputation with the international financial community.
Important reforms in the fields of health, housing and the cost-of-living would be postponed.
Every effort must be made to calm the situation and prevent an early election. To achieve this, the prime minister should avoid unnecessary clashes among the coalition members. Scrapping the “Jewish state bill” would be the first positive step toward prolonging the life of the coalition and, in the process, protecting the Jewish state’s political stability and health.