Amid Efforts to Steady Coalition, Israel's Nation-State Law Sharpens Tensions

Divisions mount as fears of early elections come amid continued friction between coalition members

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Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, right, and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, left, attend a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, right, and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, left, attend a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday.Credit: Abir Sultan /AP

When he was asked during a faction meeting of his Yisrael Beiteinu party on Monday why he is behaving “as if there’s the smell of elections in the air,” Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman replied, “People who have trouble smelling should see the ear, nose and throat doctor.”

Lieberman’s defensive retort aside, many of those in political circles say that recent remarks by Lieberman and other coalition partners, in particular those regarding the Nation-State Law, are threatening to open fissures in the coalition.

The Nation-State Law dispute comes amid efforts by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid to stabilize the coalition, following reports in Haaretz that Bennett is preparing for early elections. “These remarks are about each side talking to their base. Elections are in the air,” a political source said.

On Sunday, after it was revealed that the officer who was killed during a failed 2018 covert mission in Gaza was a Druze, Lt. Col. Mahmoud Kheir el-Din, Lieberman urged that the Nation-State Law should be amended. Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Lapid have since issued similar calls.

The controversial law, passed in 2018, declares that Jews exclusively have the right to "national self-determination" in Israel.

Senior coalition figures have expressed bewilderment at the sudden interest in the controversial law.

“It’s obvious that there’s no way to advance an amendment to the Nation-State Law right now, even if we had 61 Knesset members in the coalition,” said one. “Now more than ever, it would have been too explosive and cause the coalition to collapse. It does nothing but damage, like the Joint List’s ‘offer’ to help with the amendment. It’s ammunition for [opposition leader Benjamin] Netanyahu.”

And indeed, the coalition’s rightist partners were angered by the statements. Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked made it clear that the Yamina party would oppose changes to any Basic Laws not specified in the coalition agreements.

“I suggest that coalition member stop toying with thoughts of making changes to Basic Laws that have not been agreed on,” Shaked tweeted. “It won’t happen, just as the coalition agreement states. If needed, Yamina will use its veto. We should be focusing on the security and economic challenges facing us.”

Yamina chairman Nir Orbach defended the Nation-State Law in the context of Kheir el-Din’s death in the line of duty, asserting that the law didn’t violate the principle of equality.

Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman at a faction meeting of his Yisrael Beiteinu party on Monday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“The Nation-State Law doesn’t discriminate against anyone. It also doesn’t state that any person has preference over another,” he said. “The Basic Law: Nation State came to express the fundamental truth that, above all, this is the state of the Jewish people.”

Justice Minister and New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar echoed those sentiments: “The Nation-State Law, which anchors Israel’s identity as a Jewish state, will neither be rescinded nor amended,” he said. But he did call to anchor the principle of equality by passing the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. Sa’ar said he sought to emphasize equality on the basis of individual rights.

The coalition’s left wing naturally stood by Lieberman, with Health Minister and Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz expressing support both for rescinding the Nation-State Law and passing the Basic Law: Equality. At a faction meeting, Horowitz called the Nation-State Law “racist and discriminatory” and said it “creates classes based on national origin.”

“The Nation-State Law should be rescinded, it’s as simple as that. Its passage was tainted. At the same time, we should advance the Basic Law: Equality,” Horowitz said. “The fact that the principle of equality is not anchored [in legislation] in Israel is a stain on Israeli democracy, and we must fix that.”

Meretz lawmaker Mossi Raz will submit the Basic Law: Equality to the ministerial legislative committee next week, Horowitz said, calling on his fellow ministers to support it. “It doesn’t have to come to a political showdown. The principle of equality won’t detract from anyone’s rights,” he said.

Lapid, who chairs the Yesh Atid party, took a middle position. “Either the Nation-State Law must be amended or the Equality Law legislated. But under the coalition agreement, changes to Basic Laws require agreement, so we must continue the dialogue,” he said.

Meanwhile, Kahol Lavan chairman Eitan Ginzburg announced that his party had submitted two bills with the ministerial legislative committee that seek to address both sides’ concerns. One is the Basic Law: Equality, which defines all citizens of Israel as equal before the law and state that a person’s individual rights may not be harmed due to reasons of religion, race, gender or other reasons. The other is the Basic Law: Declaration of Independence that would anchor the spirit and values of the declaration in law.

The Nation-State Law isn’t the only dispute to surface at this delicate time. Lieberman started his faction meeting by launching an attack on Gantz and Horowitz for meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas [Abu Mazen] several times in recent months.

“I actually want to start with the Palestinian issue – I call on all principals in this government to simply boycott meetings with Abu Mazen,” Lieberman said. “He must not be legitimized. All these pilgrimages, we just have to stop it.”

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