Netanyahu's Cabinet Approves Controversial Bill Enshrining Israel as 'Jewish Nation-state'

Tough bills expected to be combined with PM's softer version later; Netanyahu slams Livni's 'flaccid' stance on nation-state bill during cabinet debate.

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Livni and Netanyahu in 2009.
Livni and Netanyahu in 2009.Credit: Tess Scheflan
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet on Sunday approved a controversial bill to enshrine into Israeli law the status of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

The bill that passed was a combination of two bills, one proposed by Knesset members Ayelet Shaked and Yariv Levin, and the other by MK Zeev Elkin. The bill, which includes tough wording that both Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Yesh Atid ministers oppose, will be incorporated into another version Netanyahu plans to present later this week.

Fourteen ministers supported the bills in Sunday's vote and six opposed them (the five Yesh Atid ministers and Livni.)

The wording of the proposed law will be based on 14 principles that the prime minister formulated to enshrine Israel as the historic homeland of the Jewish people and determine that all of its citizens will have equal personal rights.

The ministers, however, were not asked to vote on Netanyahu's version at Sunday's meeting. Instead, they voted on a deal in which they supported the extreme versions of the bills proposed by Elkin, Levin and Shaked, who will withdraw their bills after they are passed in a preliminary reading in the Knesset and back Netanyahu's "softened" version.

The ministers' commitment to backing Netanyahu's bill is a condition for it to be presented to the coalition on Sunday, and Shaked and Elkin both said Saturday that they accept Netanyahu's principles.

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett lauded the bill, saying it would rescue south Tel Aviv from "infiltrators."

"The next time a law meant to stop infiltrators is brought to the High Court of Justice, the court will also have to consider that Israel is the 'nation-state of the Jewish people' and not just 'human dignity and freedom.' This is an important message for the residents of south Tel Aviv and for the entire country."

Coalition chairman Yariv Levin, who proposed one of the bills, said, "Today we took a step of historic significance to return Israel to its Zionist roots, after years of ongoing damage done by the justice system to the principles on which the state was founded."

Levin lashed out at Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid, calling his instruction to fellow Yesh Atid ministers to vote against the bill because it harms Israel's democracy a "bad joke at the expense of the future of Israel."

Meretz chairwoman Zahava Gal-On said that Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition partners are committing a "crime against Israeli democracy, and will be responsible for one of the blackest stains on Israeli law."

Gal-On said that even Netanyahu's tamer version of the bill undermines the principle of equality and turns Israel's Arab population into second-class citizens.

'A flaccid stance doesn't serve the current reality'

During the meeting, a heated debate erupted as Netanyahu called Livni "flaccid" for her stance on the controversial issue.

"We wouldn't be here if Livni had conducted herself differently. A flaccid stance doesn't serve the current reality," Netanyahu reportedly told Livni during the deliberation.

Netanyahu was referring to Livni's announcement over the weekend that she would only support a softened version of the bill that the prime minister was expected to present in the coming weeks.

Livni, who just last week proposed a toned-down version of the bill, 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.

After Netanyahu assailed her, Livni shot back, "If all this nonsense is just to get back at me, then you won. Now let's discuss the essence [of the bill] before you all ruin the country."

"You want us to vote against it so that you'll be able to fire us," Livni said to Netanyahu. "Your speech this morning, with its niceties about the Declaration of Independence and [Ze'ev] Jabotinsky and equality, doesn't disguise Elkin's bill, which bears no resemblance to your words. ... Is the nation-state bill a cover for a political exercise? If not, then agree to postpone the discussion on Wednesday and have a real discussion with us about content before you ruin the country."

Netanyahu submitted the bill for the government's approval over the objections of, and despite his relationship with, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein. The attorney general is usually proud of his good relations with the prime minster, thanks to which he has managed to prevent all kinds of initiatives the public does not even know about, such as Netanyahu's to shut down Channel 10 and problematic appointments.

Weinstein has said that he does not confront the prime minister head on or in the press because he believes he can discretely achieve results through secret channels.

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