Israeli flag near the settlement of Ma'alah Adumim
An Israeli flag flies near the settlement of Ma'alah Adumim. Photo by AP
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced that he intends to advance a new basic law to guarantee Israel’s existence as the state of the Jewish people, after recognizing that there are those who “seek to undermine the historic, moral and legal justification for the existence of the State of Israel as the state of our people.” But Netanyahu is mistaken, and perhaps he is intentionally being misleading.

In Israel and outside it, no significant challenge has been made to its right to exist as the state of the Jewish people. There is a meaningful challenge to Israel’s operational policy — led by the prime minister — the implication of which is that the occupation, the settlement enterprise and the apartheid regime imposed on the Palestinian population are a foundation of Israel’s existence.

The passage of another nationalist law, the likes of which are passed in certain regimes, would be very damaging to Israel and would not have a positive impact on attitudes toward the state. Only eliminating the occupation would have that effect.

The real significance of the proposed law was explicated by one of its proponents, MK Yariv Levin (Likud), who claimed it would “return Israel to the Zionist path, after years of continual injury by the judicial system to the basic principles on which the state was founded.” In other words, the judicial system, which has in many instances prevented major damage to Israel in the international arena and acted as an upholder of civil rights in the absence of a constitution, is not, according to Levin, part of “the basic principles on which the state was founded.” Indeed, this bill lays the groundwork for discriminating between Israeli citizens and violating the civil rights of Arab citizens, and for annexing territory while violating the rights of its inhabitants — violations that the judicial system has so far succeeded in preventing, in instances where the injustice was intolerable.

Israel boasts of being the only democracy in the Middle East, and it does have many important components of democracy, on account of which it is considered part of the democratic world. But the occupation and the apartheid, antidemocratic regime that it creates have long since gone from being a constraint that was imposed on Israel to being a goal in itself. In these circumstances, it is not surprising that supporters of the occupation such as Levin seek to remove the democratic obstacles from their path. That is the true meaning of the proposed Basic Law on Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish people.

Israel was defined as a Jewish and democratic state in a Basic Law around 20 years ago. This definition reflects the realization of the Zionist program to establish a state for the Jews in a democratic framework that grants equal rights to all citizens, including those who are not Jewish, and gives equal weight to both descriptors. This definition does not need to be changed by the prime minister.