Arab Lawmakers Ask Court to Overturn Ban on Debating Bill Calling Israel a State of All Its Citizens

Joint List petitions court after plenum blocks submission of proposal defining Israel's identity

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
File photo: Joint List lawmakers Ayman Odeh and Aida Touma-Sliman in the Knesset, 2018.
File photo: Joint List lawmakers Ayman Odeh and Aida Touma-Sliman in the Knesset, 2018. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Three lawmakers from the Joint List petitioned the High Court of Justice Monday morning against the decision last week by the Knesset plenum to block them from submitting a bill declaring Israel a state of all its citizens.

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The plenum, comprising Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and his ten deputies, took the exceptional step of preventing the legislation's sponsors – Jamal Zahalka, Haneen Zoabi and Joumah Azbarga – from even submitting their bill, on the grounds that it negates the identity of the Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

In their petition to the court, the three members of the Balad party, one of the parties that make up the Joint List, wrote that “even if a bill undermines one of the core characteristics of the state as a Jewish state, this is not sufficient grounds for wielding the power of inadmissibility.”

The MKs emphasized that the Knesset plenum must take into account the principle of freedom of expression, and consider the likelihood that a debate on the bill would itself lead to negation of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.

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In addition, the petitioners are asking the High Court to order the parliamentary body to explain why it has the authority to disqualify bills that oppose Israel’s status as “the state of the Jewish people” and why that authority should not be revoked.

The Knesset plenum decides whether to allow proposed legislation to be submitted to the plenum for debate. Seven of its MKs supported blocking the bill in question: Edelstein and his deputies Meir Cohen (Yesh Atid), Nava Boker (Likud), Revital Swid (Zionist Union), Hamad Amar (Yisrael Beiteinu), Tali Ploskov (Kulanu) and Yisrael Eichler (United Torah Judaism). MKs Esawi Freige (Meretz) and Ahmad Tibi (Joint List) opposed their colleagues' decision, and Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi) abstained.

Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon clarified in a legal opinion formulated before the debate last week that, “Both in principle and on the individual level, it is difficult not to view the proposal as seeking to negate the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people.”

According to Yinon, the proposal includes clauses designed to change the character of Israel from the nation-state of the Jewish people to a state in which the Jewish nation and the Arab nation have equal status. Yinon added that the proposal aims to revoke the Law of Return – so that it stipulates that the granting of citizenship will be based on the family relationship of a person to any citizen of the state – and to prevent the Hebrew language from continuing to be the country’s primary, official language.

Disqualifying a bill at the stage of submission is extremely rare. The only such instance was during the 18th Knesset, when three bills proposed by MK Tibi were rejected: one recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine; another recognizing the Nakba (or "catastrophe," when more than 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes during the War of Independence); and a third that would require the study of the Nakba in schools.

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