Livni Likely to Back Netanyahu's 'Jewish Nation-state' Bill

Justice minister expected to support the proposed bill even though it doesn't guarantee equality for all citizens.

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Livni with Netanyahu in 2009.
Livni with Netanyahu in 2009. Credit: Daniel Bar On
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni is likely to support a new version of the so-called 'Jewish nation-state' bill proposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, even though this version makes no explicit mention of equality for Israel’s Arab citizens.

Livni’s associates said the basic principles contained in her own version of the bill were also included in Netanyahu’s version, details of which were first reported by Haaretz on Wednesday. The Attorney General’s Office released an opinion on Thursday stating that Netanyahu’s proposal includes the concept of equality even though the word itself doesn’t appear there, and Livni is relying on this opinion, they explained.

The bill’s purpose is to enshrine Israel’s identity as the nation state of the Jewish people in a Basic Law, which has quasi-constitutional status.

Netanyahu’s proposal isn’t yet finalized, and it’s not clear when it will be brought to a vote. The prime minister will present the bill’s 14 basic principles to the cabinet on Sunday, but no vote will be held.

Instead, the ministers are likely to be asked to vote on a deal under which all coalition members will support two more extreme versions of the bill when they come up for preliminary reading in the Knesset next Wednesday. In exchange, the bills’ sponsors – MKs Zeev Elkin (Likud), Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi) and Yariv Levin (Likud) – will promise to shelve their bills immediately after the vote and support Netanyahu’s bill instead.

Both Shaked and Elkin said Thursday that the principles contained in Netanyahu’s bill were acceptable to them.

But the emerging cabinet deal will pose a problem for Livni’s Hatnua party, which views both of the versions to be voted on Wednesday as extreme. Elkin’s bill, for instance, would abolish Arabic’s status as one of Israel’s official languages and mandate construction of new Jewish communities without requiring similar construction for Arabs.

While Hatnua members can’t violate the cabinet’s decision by voting against the bills, they could skip the vote. However, it’s not yet clear whether they will.

One politician said the proposed cabinet decision was “stupid. If everyone is promising from the outset that the Shaked and Elkin bills will be shelved, why vote on them to begin with? Why make life difficult for Yesh Atid and Hatnua, which oppose these bills, and force them to deal with this issue? It would be better to let Netanyahu finish his version of the bill and bring that alone to a vote.”

Orit Korin, the deputy attorney general for legislation, voiced support on Thursday for Netanyahu’s version of the bill. In a written opinion, she said that even though the word “equality” doesn’t appear in it, “We believe the correct legal reading of the wording shows that equality is included among the principles on which the government bill on this matter will be based.”

This conclusion, she wrote, is based on two main elements of the bill: its “clear statement” about Israel’s democratic character and values and its explicit protection of civil rights for all Israelis.

The introduction to the bill, Korin noted, states that its purpose is to enshrine “Israel’s values as a Jewish and democratic state.” In addition, its second principle declares that “Israel is a democratic state.”

“These are significant statements which make it clear that the new Basic Law, alongside enshrining the state’s identity as the Jewish nation state in which the Jewish people realizes its right to self-determination, also enshrines the state’s democratic character,” she wrote.

“The state’s democratic character includes an obligation to protect human rights, and among them equality,” she continued. “Even though democratic regimes around the world differ from each other in their systems of government, the separation of powers between the different branches of government and sometimes even the nature of judicial review over the legislature with regard to human rights violations, there is no disagreement that equality is a human right that is positioned at the core of the web of fundamental rights protected by any regime that is termed democratic.”

But Hadash party chairman MK Mohammed Barakeh was scathingly critical of the bill. “Netanyahu is laying the constitutional groundwork for apartheid and bringing Israel down to the status of a pariah state,” he told Haaretz. “He’s instigating war with Gaza and Iran, building separation walls and perpetuating the occupation and the settlements.”

Barakeh said he plans to protest Netanyahu’s bill by submitting a bill of his own to the Knesset that will be titled “Israel – a democratic and egalitarian state.” His bill says that “Every person in Israel has the right to equal protection of the law and complete equality of opportunities,” and also permits the government to take affirmative action to promote equality. It was written together with Dr. Yousef Jabareen, the director of Dirasat, the Arab Center for Law and Policy.

This bill will be “the last bill I submit before my resignation from the Knesset this March,” Barakeh added. “A consolidation of democratic [forces] around this bill would stop the erosion. My bill is an attempt to drag the public debate in the direction of normalcy.”

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