Analysis

Netanyahu Throws a Racist Bone to the Masses as Election Whispers Grow Louder

Rivlin crosses the limits of his mandate, but his criticism of the racist clause permitting the establishment of Jewish-only communities is based on his heart's blood

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem, 2015
Emil salman

For decades the nation-state bill has been the gun that goes off in the third act after lying in a drawer throughout the play. Every time it gets whipped out, one wonders: why now? Why not before? and what is the motive?

Benjamin Netanyahu has been leading his “excellent” coalition, as he himself called it this week, for more than three years. Every now and again the nation-state bill has raised its head, only to vanish again. Now, moments before the Knesset’s protracted summer break, following which the countdown to elections will begin, Netanyahu suddenly decided that the bill is extremely important, vital to the fate of the nation, and brooks no further delay.

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Now he’s urging his representatives in Likud to wrap up the legislative process next week, including the racist, discriminatory clause – 7b – enabling Jews to prevent Arabs from living in community towns that were formed to house people belonging to a single religion or nationality. He shrugs off warnings from legal experts that the clause will lock in Israel’s reputation as a racist entity. As the elections approach, he wants a flag to wave, a pin to attach to his lapel, a bone to throw to the masses.

If the High Court of Justice throws out clause 7b, he won’t shed a tear. Quite the contrary, perhaps. That would gain him a threefold victory: he tried; he was foiled time and again by the court; and Israeli law would be spared a stinking black stain. The hatred his base has for the legal system will grow and he can ride it, cheering and winking, to a fifth term.

Israel's hardline nation-state bill

What Netanyahu failed to enter into his calculations is that there’s this president, Reuven Rivlin, who thinks that the State of Israel is more important than the prime minister’s electoral considerations. On Tuesday Rivlin sent a letter to the committee handling the bill, protesting the blanket nature of 7b, writing that in the absence of balances, "I fear it could harm the Jewish people, Jews around the world and in the State of Israel, and could even serve as a weapon in the hands of our enemies.” He urged the Knesset members to rethink.

On Tuesday night it was reported that due to President Rivlin’s publicly applied pressure and the position of the legal counsels to the cabinet and the Knesset, Netanyahu was thinking of softening the problematic section and removing its crassly racist element.

Unquestionably, Rivlin is stretching the boundaries of the vague mandate of his job to the maximum, maybe a bit beyond. Even if he crossed the line Tuesday, clearly his letter was written using his heart’s blood, driven by profound worry for Israel’s image in the world, not because he’s a groveler, or “leftie,” or “politician,” or “against Netanyahu." These were some of the superficial accusations leveled against him from people on the Likud back benches, who, absent any substantial record of parliamentary action aside from embarrassing themselves, live off inarticulate tweets and specialize in verbosity.

Likud Mks Miki Zohar, Oren Hazan and Amir Ohana led the onslaught. None tried to address the actual claims Rivlin made – constitutional, ethical, regarding image. That would be too much for them to handle. As long as they can cast mud and aspersions, they feel they’re ahead. And to think that if Rivlin hadn’t been elected president four years ago, he’d have had to sit with them in the Knesset. If he made it to the Knesset list, that is, which isn’t at all sure.