AG: 'Jewish Nation-state' Bill Is Attack on Israel's Democratic Nature

PM Netanyahu to ask cabinet to advance private bills today, but championing his own compromise proposal.

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Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein.
Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to present a controversial deal to the cabinet on Sunday morning, where he will ask the coalition to support two extreme versions of a nation-state bill in their preliminary readings this Wednesday. However, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein came out strongly against Netanyahu’s intention to ask the cabinet to approve the private bills, in a letter to Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mendelblit on Friday.

Netanyahu wants the framers of the original bills – one by MK Zeev Elkin, the other by MKs Ayelet Shaked and Yariv Levin – to then withdraw support for their extreme versions and back the bill he is working on.

The prime minister will present the cabinet Sunday with the 14 principles on which he proposes basing his version of the bill. It is unclear when he will present the bill itself, which would enshrine Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people as a Basic Law.

He said on Saturday that his bill is “essential to maintain the basis of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, in light of international and internal challenges to this basic determination. By means of the law, we will strengthen the State of Israel as Jewish and democratic, and full equality, before the law, of every citizen without reference to religion, race or gender.”

Netanyahu said the defining of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people did not conflict with the equality promised to all its citizens.

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnuah) and the four Yesh Atid ministers are expected to vote against Netanyahu’s plan in the cabinet meeting.

AG Weinstein wrote Mendelblit that there was nothing ostensibly wrong with presenting a proposal for a Basic Law defining Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. However, he added that some aspects of the bill “would make a real change to the basic principles of constitutional law as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Basic Laws of the Knesset, and lead to deterioration of the democratic characteristic of the state.”

Weinstein said the framers of the bills were “splitting the accepted wording ‘Jewish and democratic’ adopted by the Knesset in a number of Basic Laws, while the Jewish part of the phrase was being given prominence and the bills “delimit the second foundation into a narrow area in determining that Israel has a ‘democratic regime.’”

MK Levin called Weinstein’s opinion “patronizing,” adding, “The question of the image of the state and its basic values must continue to be built, given, in a democratic regime, only to the public by means of its elected officials in the Knesset and the cabinet. Under no circumstances should it become the private province of a small cluster of jurists trying to place themselves above the Knesset.”

Livni, who just last week proposed a toned-down version of the bill, is expected to vote against the more extreme versions today. She is expected to vote for Netanyahu’s version if it is based on the principles that have been made public, because, according to her inner circle, the principles in Livni’s version of the bill are contained in Netanyahu’s.

Livni’s version of the bill says the state will maintain “equality for all its citizens.” Her support for Netanyahu’s version, which does not expressly contain the word “equality,” is based on the opinion of the Justice Ministry that Netanyahu’s version contains the spirit of equality.

Elkin’s bill is a recycling of one proposed in the last Knesset by former MK Avi Dichter, which would allow the courts to give precedence to Israel’s Jewish identity over its democratic regime in cases where the two values clash. Under its provisions, Arabic would no longer be an official language in Israel but would have “special status,” while Jewish jurisprudence would serve as an “inspiration” to courts and the Knesset.

The version of the bill proposed by coalition chairman Levin and Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi) is considered more moderate than Elkin’s. It does not contain a clause subjugating Israel’s democratic nature to its Jewish nature; however, it significantly highlights the association of Jews to the state as opposed to others.

Shaked and Levin’s bill was never discussed in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, because at the meeting in which it was supposed to be debated, Livni established a committee, headed by jurist Prof. Ruth Gavison, to formulate a compromise bill.

MK Danny Danon (Likud), who is campaigning against Netanyahu for party chairmanship, said, “Any move that reduces, even by a comma, the bill proposed by Likud members is an unacceptable surrender.”

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