Controversial Jewish Nation-state Bill Won't Be Heard Before Knesset Recess

Despite pressure from Netanyahu, first reading of bill will be delayed for at least three months – but coalition whip David Bitan promises extra time will allow for broader discussion

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center), flanked by Amir Ohana (left) and David Bitan, at a Likud faction meeting, July 10, 2017.
Emil Salman

The Knesset will not conduct the first reading of the controversial Jewish nation-state bill before lawmakers break for their summer recess in two weeks, said coalition whip David Bitan on Monday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been pressuring Knesset members to vote on the bill's first reading before the break because otherwise it would be delayed by at least three months, until the Knesset returns to session in October after the Jewish fall holidays.

The delay of the vote is intended to allow for extensive public discussion of the wording of the nation-state bill, said Bitan. He said he took the recommendation of Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon not to fast-track the bill, since doing so would increase the likelihood that the High Court would overrule it due to insufficient debate in the Knesset.

“We know there will be a High Court of Justice [petition against] this law,” said Bitan. “The prime minister wanted it to pass its first reading [before the recess], but that is impossible. The Knesset legal advisor told me we need to pass the law only after a large number of meetings are held and we need to allow a broad discussion, academic too. Given this situation I preferred to accept the recommendation,” he added.

Instead of the Jewish nation-state bill, the government coalition now plans to advance a number of bills in their second and third readings before the summer break. The coalition is also expected to try once again to pass the so-called Muezzin Bill.

Last week, Yinon told Likud's Amir Ohana, the chairman of the special committee preparing the nation-state bill, that despite Netanyahu's request, it could not be presented for its first reading until after the summer recess because of its complexity and the tight schedule involved. Yinon called the proposed law the “most significant legislative step since 1992.” If the bill is enacted, it would become a basic law, joining the central body of legislation equivalent to a constitution.

Netanyahu announced a week ago that the bill would pass its first reading before the Knesset's summer break. At a Likud faction meeting, he made it clear that his coalition had to be enlisted to allow the bill to pass according to his timetable.

The controversial bill declares Israel “the national home of the Jewish people” and states that the right to realize self-determination in the state is unique to them. The current version of the proposed law denies Arabic official-language status, though it says “its speakers have the right to language-accessible state services.”

A special ministerial committee that is working on its own, alternative version of the bill, which would not classify Israel as "Jewish and democratic." They have yet to decide on their final position for both this issue and the status of Arabic.

The present phrasing of the bill does not subordinate democracy to the state’s Jewish character, as did an earlier version. Ministers are still considering whether to say that Israel is “a Jewish state with a democratic form of government,” or to omit any reference to democracy and instead make do with a vague clause about how Israel is “a Jewish state in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel."