Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that while all Israeli citizens deserved equal rights, the state itself was the homeland of just the Jewish people and should be enshrined as such, elaborating on his proposal last week to enact legislation to define Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
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Netanyhau told ministers at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem: "Israel gives full equal rights to all its citizens, but it is the nation-state of one people – the Jewish people – and no other. To fortify Israel's standing as the nation-state of the Jewish people, I intend to spearhead the legislation of a Basic Law that will enshrine this status."
"Israel is a Jewish and democratic state," Netanyahu said. "Our Basic Laws give full expression to the democratic aspect of the state. We do this by giving full equal rights to each and every citizen. The Basic Laws do this by means of two main laws – the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, and the Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation.
"However," Netanyahu added, "Israel's status as the nation-state of the Jewish people is not given sufficient expression in our Basic Laws, and this is what the proposed Basic Law is meant to do."
"It will define the national right of the Jewish people to the state of Israel, without infringing on the individual rights of any citizen of Israel. It will fortify the standing of the Law of Return as a Basic Law, it will anchor in the Basic Laws the standing of the national symbols – the flag, the national anthem, the language and other components of our national being," he said. "These components are under relentless and increasing attack from abroad, and even at home."
"Of course, there are those who don't want Israel to be defined as the nation-state of the Jewish people," the prime minister went on to say. "They want to see a Palestinian nation-state arise alongside us, and for Israel to gradually become a bi-national, Arab-Jewish state, within its narrow borders. But I say one simple thing: You can't hold the national stick by both ends. You can't say that you want to separate from the Palestinians in order to avoid a bi-national state, an argument that has a certain logic to it, and meanwhile sanctify a bi-national, Jewish-Arab state in Israel's permanent borders."
"The law will be formulated in collaboration with all members of the coalition, so as to preserve Israel's values as a Jewish and democratic state," Netanyahu said, adding: "I want to make clear that this is not about politics. In the previous term, when the opposition brought up a similar proposal, I immediately announced my support for it."
In recent years, "nation-state laws" has become a code name for laws designed to compel the High Court to prioritize the state's Jewish identity over its democratic identity. People who were involved in the formulation of Netanyahu's declaration said that the exact wording for the law has yet to be determined, but that he definitely intends to follow through with the plan.
Over the past few years, Netanyahu has taken steps to thwart a vote on a number of controversial bills on this issue, including MK Yariv Levin and Habayit Hayehudi faction chairman MK Ayelet Shaked's bill that was recently put before the Knesset. Inter alia, the bill - a relatively moderate version of the bill proposed in the previous Knesset by former MK Avi Dichter (Kadima) - called for not granting Arabic status as an official language. The new version states that Israel is the national home of the Jewish people and that the right to realize this national self-definition in Israel is reserved for the Jewish people.
Following the prime minister's announcement on the subject last week, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni was highly critical of the move. "We will absolutely not allow the state's democratic values to be infringed, weakened or made subordinate to the Jewish values. This is the essence of the Scroll of Independence and the basis of our existence. The justice minister has previously opposed such initiatives and will do the same again, even if the proposal is coming from the prime minister," said a spokesperson for Livni.
Livni's people said that if the proposal infringes on democracy in any way, she will block it, "unless it finds a correct balance between the democratic and Jewish values without weakening Israel's democracy one iota." They added that "if it turns out to be a Yariv Levin-type of bill, Livni will block it in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation."
This headline of this article was amended on May 7.