New Nation-state Bill Will Not Define Israel as 'Jewish and Democratic' State

Ministers weighing whether to even mention the word 'democracy' in Basic Law and still undecided on status of the Arabic language

Jerusalem Day at Damascus Gate, May 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

Ministers working on the proposed nation-state law have decided not to define Israel as a “Jewish and democratic” state in it.

A special ministerial committee recently completed most of its draft on the Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People. But ministers have yet to agree on two major issues: whether to include any mention of the state being democratic; and the official status of the Arabic language.

Ministers are considering whether to say that Israel is “a Jewish state with a democratic form of government,” or to omit any reference to democracy in the Basic Law and 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.”

The proposed Basic Law is also expected to formulate a distinction between the status of the Arabic language and that of the Hebrew language.

“There is indecision about the precise definition of Arabic,” says a source involved in formulating the law. Thus, while Hebrew will be defined in law as “the state language,” in one current draft version Arabic will be given “special status in the state.”

In another version being discussed, there will be an additional provision to the effect that “nothing stated in the paragraph above shall impinge on the status actually accorded to the Arabic language prior to the enactment of this Basic Law.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has yet to be updated on the emerging formulations and has not yet given his approval for this version to go back to the full Knesset for a second and third reading.

The ministerial committee consists of Yariv Levin (Likud), Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi), Eli Cohen (Kulanu) and Avi Dichter (Likud), with the latter drawing up the initial version of the bill. They met last Sunday in an attempt to complete a formulation that the various political parties in the governing coalition can agree upon.

After the meeting, Levin met with representatives of the ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) parties, including MK Moshe Gafni and MK Meir Porush (both United Torah Judaism). In the discussion, the lawmakers were shown various clauses of the law and they asked that a number of changes be made.

The free daily Israel Hayom – which on Friday published the emerging draft for the first time – stated that at the request of the Haredim, new text was added, to the effect that the state will preserve the Jewish religious heritage and traditional holy sites. As a result, in a clause that reads “The state will act to preserve the cultural and historical heritage of the Jewish people in the Diaspora,” the words “and religious” have been added alongside “historical.”

During last Sunday’s discussion, the committee expressed dissatisfaction that the Basic Law could harm the rights of Israel’s Druze community, despite their significant contribution to the state and the fact they volunteer for the Israel Defense Forces. Various alternatives are currently being examined in order to emphasize the value the state places on their integration into society.

Likud’s formulation of the Basic Law, which is expected to win coalition approval, is based on the private member’s bill Dichter initiated last May at the Ministerial Committee for Legislation.

The original proposal stated that Israel is “the national home of the Jewish people” and “the right to realize national self-definition is reserved exclusively to the Jewish people.”

The law proposes establishing the Arabic language as “having special status” in Israel, but not as an official language.

Dichter’s proposal also enshrines in law the national anthem, the national flag and the nation’s official symbols. Additionally, it states: “Every resident of Israel, regardless of religion or nationality, is entitled to act to preserve his culture, heritage, language and identity.”

Dichter’s original proposal also inserted the Admissions Committees Law into the Basic Law by declaring that “the state can enable a community, including members of a single religion or a single nationality, to establish a separate communal settlement.”

Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party made it clear on Thursday that it intends to prevent the advancement of that particular clause, as well as the requirement that judges who have not found an answer in legislation to legal questions must rule on the basis of “the principles of freedom, justice, integrity and peace, deriving from Israel’s heritage.”

The nation-state bill is code for two separate measures the coalition tried to advance, unsuccessfully, in the last Knesset: one version, by Habayit Hayehudi and the hawkish wing of Likud, demanded precedence for the Jewish character of the state over its democratic form of government in Supreme Court rulings, thereby bringing about a change in the prevailing spirit that has dictated a number of justices’ rulings.

The more moderate version, promoted in the past by Netanyahu, was aimed at enshrining in law that the State of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. By promoting the law, Netanyahu sought to reinforce his demand that the Palestinian Authority recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people as a precondition for renewing peace talks.

Because of coalition disagreements surrounding the law’s formulation, a team was appointed upon the establishment of the current government to try and formulate an agreed-upon version, headed by then-Coalition Chairman Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud, now regional cooperation minister). However, when that team fell apart after Hanegbi’s ministerial appointment, a new committee was appointed in its place.

In January, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation decided to postpone the vote on a far more moderate version of the law that had been formulated by MK Benny Begin (Likud), in the hope of creating a text that would be approved by all coalition parties.

Begin’s proposal, which had garnered some support from the opposition benches (including Yesh Atid and Zionist Union) and from the coalition, called for enshrining in law that Israel is “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” but also promised equal rights to all its citizens – a stipulation that thus far has not appeared in Israeli statute books.

Begin’s version says the form of government in the State of Israel is a democratic form of government – something that is not mentioned at all in the original Declaration of Independence from 1948.