Israeli Nation-state Bill Can’t Be Fast-tracked, Knesset Counsel Says

Head of special commission to promote the bill remains undeterred, says coalition will do everything to complete first stage of legislation before summer break

Coalition Chairman David Bitan, standing, with Benjamin Netanyahu to his right, May 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

The Jewish nation-state bill cannot be fast-tracked to complete the first stage of its legislation before the Knesset summer break, the parliament's legal counsel warned on Wednesday.

Likud lawmaker Amir Ohana, who was appointed to head the commission to promote the bill earlier in the day, insisted that the coalition would do everything it could to complete the first of the bill's three readings in time.

The bill defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people would force the High Court of Justice to favor Israel's Jewish character over its democratic character should the two conflict. The draft bill defines the country as “a Jewish and democratic state” but requires the court to interpret the law based on Israel being the Jewish nation-state.

Even before the Knesset's House Committee appointed Ohana to chair the commission, which has nine members from the coalition and seven from the opposition, legal counsel Eyal Yinon notified him that the bill cannot be enacted in the rapid time frame envisioned by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Since the bill revolves around a major and complex basic law, Yinon explained, two weeks is not enough time to properly explore a proposal of this magnitude.

Coalition whip David Bitan (Likud) said at a meeting of the House Committee on Wednesday morning that he also isn’t sure the bill’s first reading can be done by the end of summer.

Opposition members spoke out sharply against the establishment of the special commission during the House Committee session where the notion was debated.

Dov Khenin of the Joint List claimed the commission's establishment was designed to neutralize the voice of Likud lawmaker Benny Begin, who opposes the bill. Begin sits on the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee that had initially been slated to debate the bill's merits.

Accusing the prime minister of creating a "circus atmosphere," Khenin said Netanyahu was “playing with committees to keep away Benny Begin," and added that "you can’t hold a discussion like this on a committee that has been tailored to the needs of the coalition.”

Khenin also charged that if enacted, the law would lead to “dramatic structural change in Israel’s constitutional regime. Netanyahu tells the extreme right that the law will weaken the democratic dimension. He tells the ultra-Orthodox that it will strengthen the Jewish character of the state. But nobody knows what the outcome will be,” Khenin said.

Merav Michaeli of the Zionist Union said that she first learned of the commission’s establishment from Netanyahu’s press announcement. The opposition had not been informed in advance, she complained.

The Joint List's Ahmad Tibi said the purpose of the debate was to nullify the value of democracy and strengthen nationalist values. He needled Netanyahu: “What happened to the prime minister that made him rush to promote the law before elections? Not the Gabbay effect but the submarines effect,” he said, referring to the newly elected Labor leader Avi Gabbay, who is being touted as real competition to Netanyahu, and to a developing scandal surrounding Israel’s procurement of submarines from Germany. The prime minister is "taking us to new depths of racism and nationalism,” Tibi said.

Changing subject, he added, “Even if you say that Yiddish is the most common language in the world, Arabic will remain the language of this place. You are abolishing the national symbol of a national collective.”

Esawi Freige of Meretz protested the absence of Kulanu lawmakers from the discussion since the party was helping push the bill through.

The members of the special commission also sit on the Constitution Committee or the House Committee itself. The House Committee members are the chairman Ohana (Likud), Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beiteinu), Avraham Nagosa (Likud), Yoav Ben-Tzur (Shas), Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin (Zionist Union), Mickey Levy (Yesh Atid), Yoel Hasson (Zionist Union) and Abdullah Abu Maaruf (Joint List). Joining from the Constitution Committee are Tali Ploskov (Kulanu), Yael Cohen Paran (Zionist Union), Nissan Slomiansky (Habayit Hayehudi), Uri Maklev (United Torah Judaism), Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union), Michal Rozin (Meretz), Osama Saadia (Joint List) and Nurit Koren (Likud).