Knesset disqualifies bill seeking equal status for Jews and Arabs

Legislation submitted by Arab members of parliament called for Israel to treat its Arab and Jewish citizens equally.

A general view shows the plenum, as Israel''s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at Knesset
Knesset Speaker Yuli Yoel Edelstein in a statement said the 'preposterous' bill 'must be blocked immediately' [Reuters]

Israel’s Knesset disqualified a bill that called for all citizens to be treated equally, rejecting the argument it must recognise the rights of its Arab minority as equal to the Jewish majority.

The text of the bill stated its objective was “to anchor in constitutional law the principle of equal citizenship while recognising the existence and rights of the two, Jewish and Arab, national groups living within the country”.

The bill was sponsored by Balad, an Arab political faction and member of the Joint List – an alliance of four predominantly Arab parties – in the parliament.

It is clear that Israel considers democracy, or even demanding it, a threat to its existence

by Haneen Zoabi, member of the Knesset

Haneen Zoabi, a Balad member of the Knesset and one of the bill’s sponsors, told Al Jazeera the proposed legislation aimed to make Israel more democratic – especially in its treatment of Arab citizens.

“The cancellation of our bill shows that democracy and equal rights do not go hand-in-hand with the way Israel defines itself as a Jewish state.

“It is clear that Israel considers democracy, or even demanding it, a threat to its existence,” Zoabi added.

According to the bill, Israel is defined as “a state for all its citizens, whose regime is a democratic regime” and, therefore, must make itself a state for both national groups, Arabs and Jews, equally.

It also called for a separation of religion and state, while guaranteeing the freedom of worship for all. 

‘Privileges to Jewish citizens’

Jamal Zahalka, who co-sponsored the proposed legislation, told Al Jazeera he wanted to place Arab citizens of Israel on equal footing with their Jewish counterparts.

“If Israel wants to remain a democratic state, it must treat all of its citizens equally,” he said.

Under the current Israeli political and legal system, Jewish citizens are accorded preferential treatment and privileges.

Zahalka acknowledged, however, even if the Knesset’s presidency allowed the bill to come to the floor, the Jewish majority in parliament would have immediately defeated it.

If Israel wants to remain a democratic state, it must treat all of its citizens equally

by Jamal Zahalka, Knesset member

The proposed bill l also aimed to negate key Israeli legislation called the “Law of Return”, which allows any Jew to become an Israeli citizen and take up residence in Israel.

Speaker Yuli Yoel Edelstein denounced the bill in a statement on the Knesset website on Tuesday.

“This is a preposterous bill that any intelligent individual can see must be blocked immediately. A bill that aims to gnaw at the foundations of the state must not be allowed in the Knesset,” Edelstein said.  

“This is the first time since my appointment as Knesset speaker five years ago that I am recommending that the presidium disqualify a bill.”

Zahalka questioned the 'constitutional biases' accorded to Jewish citizens under Israeli law [Loay Abu Haykel/Reuters]
Zahalka questioned the ‘constitutional biases’ accorded to Jewish citizens under Israeli law [Loay Abu Haykel/Reuters]

Israel was founded in the aftermath of the 1948 war on what was then Palestine.

Most Palestinians were expelled from their towns and homes by Jewish militias, or fled over the course of the war. While Israel celebrates the anniversary of its founding every May, Palestinians commemorate the event as the Nakba, or Catastrophe.

At about 1.5 million, Palestinian Arabs make up some 20 percent of Israel’s population.

Jewish vs democratic state

Zahalka, who is also from the Balad party, questioned the “constitutional biases” accorded to Jewish citizens under Israeli law.

“Why should Jews from around the world come here and become privileged citizens in the state while native Arab Palestinians are relegated to second-class status?” he asked.

“Israel is a racist and a contradictory country,” said Zahalka, who plans to file a complaint against the Knesset with the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an international organisation of parliaments of which Israel is a member.

Harvey Stein, an American-Israeli activist and filmmaker, told Al Jazeera the issue is complicated, mainly because “Israel is a paradox”.

Stein praised Zahalka “for trying to make Israel more democratic” saying that “Israel wants to be a Jewish state and a democratic state at the same time.”

“Considering that most Israeli members of the Knesset are right-wing, they would rather have Israel Jewish first, and not necessarily democratic,” he added.

Follow Ali Younes on Twitter: @ali_reports

Source: Al Jazeera