U.S. Responds to 'Jewish Nation-state' Bill: Israel Must Stick to Its Democratic Principles

Coalition heads postpone Knesset vote, but Netanyahu insists that he is 'determined' to have law passed enshrining Israel as nation-state of Jewish people.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, November 23, 2014.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, November 23, 2014. Credit: Reuters

The U.S. State Department said Monday evening that it expected Israel to "stick to its democratic principles," in its first response to the Jewish nation-state bill approved by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet a day earlier.

"Israel is a Jewish and democratic state and all its citizens should enjoy equal rights. We expect Israel to stick to its democratic principles," the State Department said.

The head of Israel's government coalition decided earlier Monday to postpone the Knesset vote on the two controversial draft bills, the next legislative step. Nevertheless, Netanyahu said on Monday that he was "determined" to have it passed, with or without his political partners' agreement.

Faction heads Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid) and Meir Sheetrit (Hatnuah) requested that Knesset members be allowed to vote as they choose – so that their party members don't find themselves in the embarrassing position of being asked to support two extreme laws.

Foreign Minister and head of Yisrael Beiteinu Avigdor Lieberman has also led efforts in the past 24 hours to postpone the Knesset vote, scheduled for Tuesday.

Habayit Hayehudi faction head Ayelet Shaked said on Monday that her party is willing to postpone the vote for a week in order to try to reach an agreement that will solve the crisis in the coalition.

It is too early to tell what this solution will entail. Finance Minister Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Hatnuah) scored a few temporary points by not having to deal with the vote on Tuesday.

But the heart of the controversy lies with the extreme bill initiated by MK Zeev Elkin (Likud). Aside for giving preference to Israel's Jewish identity rather than its democratic character, Elkin's bill 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.

It is unclear whether Elkin – one of the closest people to Netanyahu – would agree to back down from his intention to have his bill approved to its full extent. It is no less clear whether Lapid and Livni agreed to vote on the softened bill presented by Shaked and MK Yariv Levin (Likud) – which also gives precedence to Israel's Jewish identity but includes no mention of the Arabic language or construction for Jews.

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