Netanyahu Pushing Basic Law Defining Israel as Jewish State

'Israel will always preserve full equal rights, both personal and civil, of all citizens of the state of Israel, Jews and non-Jews as one,' PM says on visit to Tel Aviv's Independence Hall.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Independence Hall
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Independence HallCredit: Haaretz

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday during a visit to Independence Hall in Tel Aviv that he planned to push forward a new Basic Law to "legally anchor" Israel's status as "the nation-state of the Jewish people."

Netanyahu said he believed that the most "basic ingredient in our national lives will win legal status just as other central ingredients that constitute our fundamental core that have already been ruled into the Basic Law of Knesset."

"Unfortunately, as we have seen recently, there are those who do not recognize this natural right and who seek to appeal the historical, legal and moral justification for the existence of the state of Israel as the nation-state of our people," he added. "I see it as one of my basic missions as prime minister to fortify the state of Israel as the nation-state of our people."

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni came out verhemently against Netanyahu's plan, with her office saying she "will not allow the damaging, weakening or subjugating of [Israel's] democratic values to its Jewish values – this is the substance of the Declaration of Independence and the basis of our existence."

Livni has opposed such legislation before and will do so "even if its author is the prime minister," her office added.

However, Habayit Hayehudi gave the bill its full support, saying: "The nationality law is important for defining Israel as a Jewish state for the coming generations, and on this essential matter there must not be a [division between] left and right in Israel. This law is part of the coalition agreement with Habayit Hayehudi, just like the referendum law that passed in the last Knesset session, and we consider its advancement an important goal."

Netanyahu continued: "Israel will always preserve full equal rights, both personal and civil, of all citizens of the state of Israel, Jews and non-Jews as one, in the Jewish and democratic state," Netanyahu said. "Indeed, in Israel, individual rights and civil rights are guaranteed to all – something which makes us unique in the Middle East and beyond it."

"It is hard for me to understand that among those calling on Israel to make concessions in Judea and Samaria due to their understandable desire to avoid a bi-national state are those who oppose defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people," he added.

"It is impossible to speak out in favor of a Palestinian nation-state just to preserve the Jewish character of the State of Israel, and at the same time, to oppose recognizing that the State of Israel is the nation-state of Jewish people,  Supporting the creation of a Palestinian nation-state and opposing the recognition of a Jewish nation-state undermines in the long run the principle of the State of Israel's right to exist," he said.

The opposition benches blasted Netanyahu's proposal. Labor Party head Isaac Herzog said: "With all its being, the Labor Party supports Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Labor built the state and its leaders formulated the Declaration of Independence, the foundational document that anchors Israel as a Jewish state. Unfortunately, the diplomatic destruction Netanyahu is causing will lead Israel to lose its Jewish majority and become a binational state. This unfortunate fact is something no law can hide."

Mohammed Barakeh, head of Hadash, said: "Netanyahu is completing the series of racist laws that have been emerging in recent years and is leading Israel to become the first racial state of the 21st century. The intent of his legislation is to realize John Kerry's description of Israel as an apartheid state. Passage of this law will revive the international debate over the issue of Zionism as racism. Arab citizens are not passersby in this country and they are not Netanyahu's guests. Our fight for equality and democracy alongside all believers in democracy will continue with or without Netanyahu's deluded and dangerous law."

Meretz leader Zahava Gal-On said: "The State of Israel also has non-Jewish citizens living in it, so it must define itself as the state of the Jewish people and of all its citizens. Whoever supports the two-state solution supports Palestinian sovereignty and asks the Palestinians to recognize Israeli sovereignty but not the character of the state." 

In lieu of a formal constitution, a series of Basic Laws adopted by parliament since Israel's founding in 1948 define governmental, legislative and judicial powers, protect civil rights and codify Jerusalem's internationally disputed status as the country's capital.

Attempts in recent years to pass a "Jewish state law" embody the right wing's campaign to force the Supreme Court to give Israel's Jewish identity priority over its democratic one. Sources involved in drawing up Netanyahu's proposal say it has not been finalized, and that the prime minister's announcement outlined the bill's intentions. Netanyahu, in fact, has worked to foil previous attempts to pass a Basic Law that would alter the state's definition.

Recently a controversial version of such legislation was introduced by coalition whip MK Yariv Levin (Likud) and MK Ayelet Shaked, head of the Habayit Hayehudi faction. Their proposal defines Israel as the national home of the Jewish people, where the Jewish people have the exclusive right to national self-determination. The bill calls the "land of Israel" the historic homeland of the Jewish nation and none other. The law further states that Israel's democratic responsibility is to recognize the rights of all individuals.

Livni, head of Hatnuah, and Finance Minister Yair Lapid, head of Yesh Atid, have both said they will vote against the Levin-Shaked bill in its current form. 

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