Israeli Legislators Gird for Debate and Final Votes on Nation-state Bill

The legislation would lower the status of Arabic and encourage the establishment of communities for Jews only

A Knesset committee meeting on the nation-state bill, July 17, 2018.
Noam Rivkin / Knesset Spokesperson's Office

The governing coalition is gearing up for votes in the Knesset Wednesday – and possibly into Thursday – designed to pass the controversial nation-state bill that would let the state encourage the establishment of communities for Jews only.

Opposition MKs say the bill erodes the rights of Israeli Arabs – also because of the section that lowers the status of Arabic from an official language to one with “special status.”

>> Nation-state Bill Heralds the End of Israel as a Jewish, Democratic State | Analysis

The bill’s final version is still not ready, but it is not expected to change significantly – if at all – from the current wording. Senior coalition MKs told Haaretz that as of Tuesday there were no major problems to keep the Knesset from approving the legislation.

In an unusual move, the special Knesset committee preparing the final version of the bill, known officially as the Basic Law on Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, will convene at 7 A.M. Wednesday to finish its voting on the bill’s sections. The legislation would then go to the full Knesset for its second and third votes.

Thousands of Israelis protesting against the passage of the nation-state bill.
Meged Gozani

The plan is for the final version to be presented to the Knesset at around noon; then would come the expected marathon debate and votes on the opposition’s objections in the evening.

J Street's president and founder, Jeremy Ben-Ami, harshly criticized the nation-state bill and Netanyahu's government: "It was born in sin, its only purpose is to send a message to the Arab community, the LGBT community and other minorities in Israel, that they are not and never will be equal citizens. Two months ago we celebrated the 70th anniversary of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, where it was written that the State of Israel 'will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or gender.' Today Netanyahu's government is trying to ignore those words and the values that they represent."

Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri said this week that the final version would allow the construction of synagogues and ritual baths but not mosques – but would not prevent Arabs from buying homes and living in the communities formed from these purchases.

On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the bill was “very important to guarantee the foundations of our existence, which is Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people” – though critics say he is mainly keen to drum up support before the next Knesset election, due by November next year.

The final version will be significantly different than the original version promoted by parties in the governing coalition over the past decade. Certain key sections were softened amid pressure from both the coalition parties and critics abroad.

Originally, the bill was intended to encourage a major change: allowing Supreme Court rulings to give preference to Israel’s Jewish values over its democratic values when the two issues clashed. This section was removed in May.

The section that would allow the establishment of communities for Jews only was greatly softened in the final version; it now only “encourages” the establishment of such communities.

Some sections of the bill discuss values that are already enshrined in law, but not in the form of one of Israel’s Basic Laws, which are constitutional.

The new bill states that Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, who have the sole right to national self-determination in Israel. It also discusses state symbols such as the flag, the menorah emblem, the national anthem “Hatikva,” the Jewish calendar, Independence Day and Jewish holidays.

The bill states that unified, greater Jerusalem is Israel’s capital – as the Basic Law on Jerusalem already does. It grants Hebrew the status of the sole official language.

According to another controversial section, the state will strive to preserve its ties with world Jewry – without mention of Jews in Israel. This wording was demanded by the ultra-Orthodox parties to prevent any obligation by the state to the Reform and Conservative communities in Israel.