President Rivlin Comes Out Against Jewish Nation-state Bill as Netanyahu, Lapid Spar Over It

PM plans to present a final version in coming days; Lapid threatens not to back the bill unless it includes the word 'equality.'

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Netanyahu and Lapid during a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, November 10, 2014.
Netanyahu and Lapid during a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, November 10, 2014.Credit: Mark Israel

As the political battle over the Jewish nation-state bill escalated, President Reuven Rivlin came out strongly against it on Tuesday, saying the framers of the Declaration of Independence “in their great wisdom, insist that the Arab public in Israel not feel like the Jews felt in the Diaspora.” Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein and State Prosecutor Shai Nitzan also reiterated their opposition to the controversial proposal.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to present a final version of the bill in the next few days. But his largest coalition partner, Yesh Atid, led by Finance Minister Yair Lapid, is threatening not to support it unless it explicitly includes the word “equality.”

The bill is aimed at enshrining Israel’s character as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Netanyahu’s version is a compromise aimed at satisfying the conflicting demands of his coalition partners, and is supposed to replace other versions of the bill that have already been submitted to the Knesset.

Rivlin, commenting publicly for the first time on the bill, told a conference of prosecutors in Eilat, “The Declaration of Independence, in its depth and greatness, bound together two components of the state as Jewish and democratic, democratic and Jewish.” The two terms were meant to be kept together, he added, but the nation-state bill could goad people to seek contradictions between the state’s Jewish and democratic character. The president said he opposed the bill and that he feared that even if another bill is passed in its stead, the antagonistic atmosphere surrounding the law would not soon dissipate.

Rivlin said the use of the term “minority” in regard to Israel’s Arab citizens “when nearly a quarter of first-graders are Arab and a fifth are ultra-Orthodox, could be wrong and misleading.” Both the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox, he said, were “citizens, flesh of the flesh of this land, which is their homeland.”

Meanwhile, coalition sources said Netanyahu hopes to finalize his proposal in the next day or two. But sources in the Likud Knesset faction said they expected Yesh Atid to have trouble supporting it.

By contrast, Likud isn’t expecting problems from Hatnuah, the coalition’s other centrist party. Its leader, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, “has been taking care to send us messages in recent days, including via the media, that she sees Netanyahu’s proposal as a mirror image of her own bill,” a Likud source explained. “So the points of dispute with Hatnuah aren’t considered significant.”

Lapid has made it clear that his party supports enacting the nation-state bill in principle, but objects to all the versions proposed to date. The party is now trying to promote a new version sponsored by party MK Ruth Calderon based on a bill prepared by former Likud minister Benny Begin. However, such a bill is considered unlikely to pass.

Yesh Atid MKs have already criticized the 14 basic principles of the bill that Netanyahu presented at Sunday’s cabinet meeting. Yesh Atid’s key demand is expected to be that the bill explicitly include the word “equality.” Netanyahu’s 14 principles didn’t promise complete equality to all citizens; instead, they guaranteed the civil rights of all citizens “according to law.”

The Attorney General’s Office said in a written opinion that Netanyahu’s bill includes the principle of equality even though the word doesn’t appear explicitly. It based this conclusion on two other elements of the bill – its commitment to Israel’s democratic nature and its guarantee of civil rights. Still, in his opening remarks at the Eilat conference, Weinstein reiterated his opposition to the bill, noting that such legislation “dealing with the core of the constitutional regime in the State of Israel, should be legislated by the government, not in private members’ bills.

Nitzan, who said the bill “should not be passed, not in this form and not at this time,” made a veiled criticism of the political leadership. Noting that Justice Ministry officials were giving anti-racism lessons in the schools, he said, “Educators will do this only if the leaders of the country preach tolerance, equality and anti-racism. And we are all proud of the president who, from his first day in office, has spoken of this and educated toward this as the main value. Would that all of our leaders follow his path.”

Yet another disagreement between Yesh Atid and Netanyahu relates to the so-called “heritage” clauses. The first of the prime minister’s 14 principles says, “The state will work to preserve the heritage and the cultural and historical tradition of the Jewish people and to instill and cultivate it in Israel and the Diaspora.” The third principle says the state will “enable” other religious or ethnic groups to strive to preserve their own cultures. Yesh Atid says this is discriminatory, because it essentially requires the state to invest money in preserving Jewish heritage but doesn’t require similar investments in preserving the heritage of other minorities.

Aside from the debate over the contents of the bill, there is a separate dispute over Netanyahu’s demand that the coalition support two earlier versions of the bill in preliminary reading, with the understanding that they will later be shelved in favor of his own proposal. Hatnuah and Yesh Atid consider these other versions, sponsored by MKs Zeev Elkin, Yariv Levin and Ayelet Shaked, unacceptably extreme.

Hatnuah and Yesh Atid have suggested that this dispute could be solved by allowing all coalition members to vote their conscience on these bills, instead of imposing coalition discipline. That would spare them the need to vote for bills they oppose.

Another possibility is to scrap the other versions entirely and wait for Netanyahu’s proposal, since the sponsors of the other bills have already agreed to support the prime minister’s bill in place of their own once it is finalized.

But it’s not yet clear whether Netanyahu would agree to waive coalition discipline in the votes on the other versions of the bill. On Sunday, following a stormy debate, the cabinet decided that coalition discipline should be imposed. But its decision also stated that the other versions will be shelved immediately after they pass their preliminary reading, and will eventually be merged with Netanyahu’s bill.

Livni and the Yesh Atid ministers have already said they will not vote for the other versions. But if they voted against these bills despite the decision to impose coalition discipline, Netanyahu could fire them for doing so.

A senior Likud source said it’s not yet clear whether the two more extreme versions even have a majority in the Knesset. Therefore, Likud agreed to postpone their preliminary readings, which were originally planned for today, by one week.

Knesset sources said another reason for the delay is that Netanyahu is still trying to persuade the ultra-Orthodox parties to join his coalition in place of Yesh Atid, even though they publicly announced last week that they wouldn’t do so. Likud sources confirmed Tuesday that Netanyahu has sent envoys to these parties in an effort to persuade them to publicly name him as their candidate to form the next coalition.

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