Israeli Minister Explains Why He Led the Effort to Pass the Nation-state Law

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who shepherded passage of the law through the Knesset, tells Haaretz he insisted the value of equality not be included in the legislation because it would undermine the Law of Return

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin
Moti Milrod

In the wake of the controversy over the nation-state law, which the Knesset passed last month, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin of Likud, who lead the effort to pass the law, has told Haaretz that the new law has put a halt to what he called "the ongoing process of erosion of the country's status as the nation-state of the Jewish people."

Levin said the law is designed to change the judicial system, and although the version of the law that was ultimately passed was softened from the original language, he said it still constituted an accomplishment. "If we look at the horrible hysteria that has taken hold of the Israeli left as a result of this law, I think it's excellent."

To really understand Israel and the Middle East - subscribe to Haaretz

The legislation, which is a basic law, meaning that it has constitutional status, defines Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people and states that the Jewish people has the exclusive right to self-determination in the country. It also makes Hebrew the country's only official language, providing "special status" for Arabic, while adding that nothing in the law would change the status of Arabic in practice. Critics take the law to task in part for failing to state that all of the country's citizens are equal before the law.

In response to right-wing criticism of the law, claiming that the final version is emptied of content, Levin said: "True, the law doesn't provide everything that I would have wanted, but it absolutely contains important statements and provisions."

>> Basic Law or Basically a Disaster? Israel’s Nation-State Law Controversy Explained

Referring to the Law of Return, which grants citizenship to Jews from abroad and their families who seek to immigrate to Israel, Levin said: "If today there is concern that they would challenge the Law of Return or the flag and [national] anthem, the [nation-state] law sets down principles that I think are obvious, but it's good that they are written down." Levin said he insisted that the value of equality not be included in the nation-state law because it would have undermined the Law of Return.

Beyond that, he said, the nation-state law also has practical implications. "The law provides tools that didn't exist in the past," he said, citing the case of Upper Nazareth, a Jewish town in the north to which considerable numbers of Arabs have moved and which is adjacent to the Arab city of Nazareth.

"If up to now, it was impossible to come and say that we want to provide specific assistance to strengthen the Jewish hold there, the law allows that to be done. It does not allow what we wanted, which was communal localities for everyone according to their wishes, but it allows giving incentives and benefits in an effort to preserve its Jewish character."

Another example Levin raised was emergency legislation that bars a family reunification involving Israeli citizens and Palestinians and which is renewed by the Knesset on an annual basis.

"Through the law, we can prevent family reunification not only out of security motives, but also motivated to maintain the character of the country as the national homeland of the Jewish people," the tourism minister said. "On several occasions, I asked the legal adviser's office to provide grounds for [opposing reunification] not only on security grounds. The response was that it's not possible because they don't have a basis for it. Now I believe we would receive a different answer."

From Levin's standpoint, the main aim of the nation-state law is to permit judges with a right-wing agenda to express it in their rulings. "This law is important because it rips off the mask from the faces of the incumbent judges. Until now, they could hide behind the argument that they were following the norms provided by the existing basic laws. Now their work is more difficult, not that it will fully prevent a few of them from continuing to rule based on their political opinions and not based on the legal situation."

He acknowledged, however, that he has no intention of attempting to reinstate provisions that were deleted before the law was passed by amending the law. "The law expresses a good balance. Its major test will be in its application. It's totally clear to me that if we don’t reform the court, we will not obtain what we have wanted. We have laid an excellent foundation. When we make a change to the judicial system and the composition of the judges is different, the final result will be completely balanced."

Commenting on protests from members of the Druze community, who unlike most other Israeli Arab citizens, are subject to the draft and who have protested what they claim is second-class status under the nation-state law, Levin said: "I agree with the Druze completely. They have been unfairly treated for years, but not due to the nation-state law. Must of the Druze public doesn't oppose the law at all. Even most who are protesting say that this is the nation-state of the Jewish people and it needs to be set [in law]."

"I identify a [developing] understanding among them that the nation-state law protects them, because they also want a Jewish nation-state here," he said. "The anger stems from the fact that those who are contributing [to the country through their military service] are treated unfairly compared to the others and they are correct in that. The plan that the prime minister has proposed is a very important historic step."

Last week, representatives of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered the Druze a plan that would recognize the contribution of the Druze community to the country's defense and offer passage of a law that would include support for community institutions  and Druze residential and establish new towns if needed.

Levin said the crisis over the nation-state law can be resolved by ensuring the rights of those who serve in Israel's security forces.