Jerusalem — Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, says he will introduce a law defining Israel as a Jewish state, giving high-level support to a controversial idea that has long been a demand of the Israeli right.
The state has never before officially defined itself as Jewish, though legislators have introduced bills to that effect over the past few years.
In a speech on Thursday, Netanyahu called Israel’s Jewish identity “the most basic ingredient of our national life”.
“It is my intention to submit a Basic Law to the Knesset that would provide a constitutional anchor for Israel’s status as the national state of the Jewish people,” he said in Tel Aviv’s Independence Hall, the site where David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the state of Israel in 1948.
Israel has never had a constitution; instead it has a series of “Basic Laws,” which are meant to someday be incorporated into a formal charter.
It’s unclear what practical impact the law would have: 66 years after independence, Israelis still disagree sharply on how a “Jewish state” should be governed.
The measure could simply be a symbolic declaration. But it could also go much further, requiring Israeli courts, for example, to interpret the law according to halakha, Jewish religious law.
Regardless of Netanyahu’s intent, the law would provide a basis for future governments to pass illiberal legislation.
“Behind these nice words, he may be hiding plans to put particular Jewish values as superior to democratic values,” said Yedidia Stern, a vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute.
“For example, if it means that Hebrew should be the only language of the country, the only formal language, then I’m against it.”
Netanyahu’s proposal has already received strong support from the right. Uri Ariel, the housing minister and a member of the conservative Jewish Home party, was quick to praise the prime minister. “I congratulate [Netanyahu] for his support of this law,” Ariel said. “It will pass in the Knesset. It has a majority.”
The most vocal opposition came from Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who said hours after Netanyahu’s speech that she would oppose the law.
“I will continue to defend the values of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and will under no circumstances allow anyone to weaken its democratic values and subordinate them to Jewish ones,” she said.
Mohammed Barakeh, a member of the Hadash party, called it a “racist law” that would discriminate against Palestinians, who make up one-fifth of the Israeli population.
The question of Israel’s identity became a central one during nine months of US-brokered negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which stalled last week.
Netanyahu insisted that the Palestinians recognise Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition for talks, a demand rejected by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president. Critics said the demand was a ploy by Netanyahu to scupper negotiations.
Abbas reiterated in a speech on Saturday that he would “never” grant Israel that recognition, saying that the PLO recognised Israel in 1993 and did not have to go further.
Netanyahu’s speech came days after Palestinian towns were targeted in two “price tag” attacks, in which car tyres were slashed and a star of David spray-painted on a mosque.
A Jewish man was also arrested for giving the Roman Catholic bishop of Nazareth a letter which told Christians to leave Israel within a week or be killed.