Netanyahu Irate Over Livni's Move to Draft Alternative to Jewish State Law

Justice Minister commissions legal scholar Prof. Ruth Gavison to draft an alternative to the controversial 'Jewish State Law,' attempting to find a balance between Israel's definition as both a Jewish state and democratic state.

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Justice Minister Tzipi Livni has appointed Prof. Ruth Gavison to formulate an alternative version to the "Jewish State Law" which is being proposed by Likud-Beiteinu and Habayit Hayehudi in the Knesset.

The controversial bill has recently been introduced by coalition whip MK Yariv Levin and by the head of Habayit Hayehudi’s Knesset faction MK Ayelet Shaked. The bill, labeled the Jewish State Law by the media, proposes to legally define a predominance of the country’s Jewish identity over and above its democratic one, particularly with regard to future judicial rulings. The proposed bill is a softer version of one which was prepared in the previous Knesset by former Kadima MK Avi Dichter.

Livni's appointment of Gavison is an attempt to find a balance between defining Israel as a Jewish state and and a democratic one. In her letter to Gavison, Livni wrote that “the time has come to find a constitutional definition to the character of Israel as both a Jewish and a democratic country and to consolidate its identity components in a manner which will find a balance between the two.”

Gavison accepted the appointment, saying that she will “strive to achieve such a balance, based on the principles that were outlined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. I will examine the bills now being considered by the Knesset and will consult with all relevant parties. After the formulation of a preliminary proposal, it will be sent to the justice minister and presented to the public for debate, as necessary.”

Livni’s announcement also conveyed that the move was welcomed by Prime Minister Netanyahu. However, sources close to the prime minister were furious. “Netanyahu did not welcome or support the Gavison's initiative. The justice minister informed him of her plan to set up a mechanism for arbitrating the controversial bill. The prime minister does not welcome or support moves that he has not fully studied.”

The new version of the bill stipulates that the State of Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people and that the right of national self-determination within Israel belongs exclusively to the Jewish people. The proposed law states that the Land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people but does not recognize that the land may be the homeland of other nations.

The next clause safeguards the democratic nature of the country, committing to upholding the civil rights of all its citizens. MKs Levin and Shaked have called on Prime Minister Netanyahu to embrace the proposed new legislation. They said that they “expect Netanyahu to support the bill in line with his demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the national state of the Jewish people.”

In an attempt to soften the earlier controversial version proposed by Dichter, several changes were introduced. Thus, a specific mention of the subservience of the democratic nature of the state to its Jewish character has been dropped in the newer version. Nevertheless, the bill emphasizes foremost the affinity of the Jewish people to the state and the land, above that of other nations. The democratic character only comes as the second clause of the proposed law. A further earlier proposal to remove Arabic as one of Israel’s official languages has been dropped as well.

Livni and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid have both stated that they would veto the bill in its present form. Livni has consistently opposed this bill, preventing Dichter from advancing it during the previous Knesset term.

Livni appointed Gavison rather than seeking the assistance of the legislation department in her ministry in the belief that Gavison will be able to bridge the gap between the numerous versions now on the table and find an acceptable compromise.

Livni has tried in the past to advance Gavison 's nomination to the Supreme Court. Gavison is a professor of law at the Hebrew University and was one of the main opponents to the Supreme Court’s activism. Her nomination was strongly opposed by then President of the Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak. Subsequently, former Justice Minister Daniel Friedman also supported her nomination, which was opposed by former President of the Court Dorit Beinisch. Gavison supports the Citizenship Law which prevents Israeli citizens from uniting with their Palestinian spouses. She also favors limiting the immigration of Jews from third world countries to Israel.

In 2005 Gavison established the Metzilah organization for Zionist, Jewish, Liberal and Humanist thought. In an interview she gave to Haaretz in 2009 she stated that the goal of achieving a stable Jewish majority in Israel was a legitimate one. In response to a question of what she would do to achieve such a goal, she replied “only what is permissible by adhering to human rights. I’m not prepared to expel Arabs or to discriminate against them, but it’s permissible for Israel to declare that it’s not ready to facilitate the expansion of a minority that undermines the justification for the state’s existence. You’re allowed to say that only immigrants who accept Israel as it is are let in. I don’t see why Israel can’t require an oath of allegiance from new citizens – that’s an accepted principle for newcomers elsewhere as well.”

In that interview she also referred to the Citizenship Law, which had overcome a challenge at the High Court of Justice by one vote. “This is not a legal question but an ideological one. It should not be determined in the courts but in the Knesset and in civil society. This is a deeply controversial ideological issue and it’s time to have an open debate about it. I believe I express the thinking of a large majority of people who wish to keep this country both Jewish and democratic. This is a large majority, not a small one. I’m not in a minority and I’m not a radical right winger. I express the mainstream in Israel.”

In reply to a question of whether she had shifted to the right, she said: “I’m a social democrat in favor of two states for two peoples, two typically left-wing stances, so I don’t understand how I could be labeled right wing. But something has happened to me that some interpret as a shift rightwards. If that’s what being a Zionist means, so be it. I’m proud of this and am willing to pay the price. Metzilah is an organization that deals with Zionism, Judaism and human rights. If that’s extreme right, then I’m an extreme rightist.”

Livni, left, sitting next to Netanyahu,in meeting with Kerry in Jerusalem, on June 29, 2013. Credit: AP

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