Jerusalem – Israeli politicians temporarily averted a political crisis on Monday, delaying the Knesset vote on a controversial “Jewish state” bill that sparked a shouting match inside the cabinet and drew angry reactions from the country’s Palestinian minority.
The bill declares Israel to be “the national state of the Jewish people”. Many provisions seem quite banal: It affirms, for example, that the flag will have a Star of David, and that the national anthem will remain HaTikvah, a song about yearning for Israel.
But it also stipulates that Jewish law should inspire the Israeli legal system, and reserves other “national rights” exclusively for Jews, including their right to automatically obtain Israeli citizenship.
“[Israel] has equal individual rights for every citizen, and we insist on this,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said before the vote. “But only the Jewish people have national rights.”
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The bill was approved by a 15-6 vote on Sunday, after a stormy four-hour debate. Journalists were not allowed inside the cabinet room, but ministers could clearly be heard shouting at each other and banging on tables.
There have actually been three versions of the bill circulated in recent weeks, one drafted by Netanyahu, the others by right-wing lawmakers.
Netanyahu’s version removed the more dramatic provisions from the other two, such as stripping Arabic of its status as an official language.
But experts warn that the law would make it easier for the Knesset to pass discriminatory legislation, and for the High Court to uphold it. Yehuda Weinstein, the attorney general, said in a letter to ministers that the law would cause “deterioration of the democratic characteristic of the state”.
Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute, said the whole process “smacks of populist politicking”.
The Israeli need for this law is not constitutional, rather it is a policy that aims to emphasise that Arab citizenship in Israel was and remains a second-class citizenship.
“[The bill] does not mention the principle of equality, thereby minimising Israel’s democratic essence and rendering it subservient to the Jewish character of the state,” he said.
Palestinians make up about 20 percent of Israel’s population; they have equal rights under the law, but in practise are subject to widespread discrimination. Adalah, a local rights group, counts more than 50 laws that are biased against the Palestinian minority, in everything from criminal procedure to land rights.
“The Israeli need for this law is not constitutional, rather it is a policy that aims to emphasise that Arab citizenship in Israel was and remains a second-class citizenship,” said Salah Mohsen, a spokesperson for Adalah.
The debate comes at a fraught moment, after a wave of Palestinian attacks killed 11 Israelis over the past month, including five at a Jerusalem synagogue last week. The synagogue attack led to fresh displays of racism, with signs plastered across the city warning that “employing Arabs endangers Jews”.
Last week the mayor of Ashkelon, Itamar Shimoni, tried to ban Palestinian construction workers from schools. The decision was met with widespread condemnation, and he eventually reversed it – but he now plans to remove students from the schools where Palestinians are working.
Yair Lapid, the finance minister, argued during Sunday’s debate that the bill would further alienate the minority.
“This morning I spoke with the family of Zidan Saif,” Lapid said, referring to a Druze police officer killed in a shootout with the synagogue attackers. “What can we say to this family? That he is a second-class citizen?”
The bill was meant to go before the full Knesset for a preliminary vote on Wednesday, but ministers have agreed to delay it for another week, for fear that a vote would bring down the government.
Netanyahu’s coalition is increasingly fragile, plagued by a looming budget crisis and the recent violence. With growing talk of early elections, analysts say the prime minister wants to shore up his support on the right, and perhaps force the centre-left parties out of his coalition.
Five of the six “no” votes came from Lapid’s party, Yesh Atid; the sixth was from Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who heads her own centrist party.
The cabinet decided that members would not be allowed to vote according to their conscience when the bill goes before the full Knesset. That puts Lapid and Livni in a bind: They cannot vote against the law and remain in the coalition.
Livni vowed not to abstain, telling Channel 2 that “I won’t hide in the bathroom during the vote on Wednesday.” But both ministers added on Sunday night that they would only reject the bill “in its current form” – opening the door to a compromise.
“Yesh Atid and I are not against the Jewish state law but do not support it in the form in which it was submitted,” Lapid said in a speech.