Netanyahu Skips Discussion on Nation-state Bill; Lawmakers Thrown Out as Debate Heats Up

Prime minister was supposed to attend the ceremonial opening meeting to signal his support of the controversial legislation

(L-R) Yariv Levin, Amir Ohana and Ayelet Shaked attend the opening debate on the nation-state bill, July 26, 2017.
Emil Salman

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the last minute canceled his participation in the symbolic opening session of the special Knesset committee tasked with advancing the nation-state bill. Netanyahu was supposed to attend the meeting on Wednesday morning to signal his support.

The discussion was a symbolic one, since the Knesset's legal adviser, Eyal Yinon, previously forbade the cabinet from bringing up the bill for voting on Wednesday before the Knesset goes on summer recess.

The Knesset must discuss the issue thoroughly before voting on a Basic Law so far-reaching, lest the High Court of Justice simply throw it out, Yinon clarified. 

The discussion was a heated one, with several opposition members protesting the proposal and quite a few getting expelled from the debate altogether. 

"The State of Israel is approaching its 70th year, but it has no identity card," said MK Amir Ohana (Likud), the chairman of the committee. 

Opposition MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) rebutted, "The Declaration of Independence is the State of Israel's birth certificate."

MK Ahmad Tibi (Joint List) was expelled from the session for interrupting and ostentatiously reading the newspaper at the committee table. MK Ilan Gilon (Meretz) was expelled after damning the committee as a "circus."

Others removed from the room included MK Michal Rozin (Meretz), and Joint List MKs Osama Saadia and Masud Ganaim.

"This law states the obvious, that the State of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people," said Minister Yariv Levin, who headed the ministerial team that consolidated the bill in recent months (based on the more extreme version proposed by Likud MK Avi Dichter).

"Since the enactment of the Basic Laws, which express the extremely important foundation that Israel is a democratic state with human rights and civil rights, an imbalance has been created. The state keeps mum regarding its Jewish nature and gives expression to other rights," Levin said.

"This law restores good order and clarifies what requires no clarification in many eyes: the centrality of the State of Israel, whose unique quality overseas is being the nation-state of the Jewish people."

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) rebutted, "You're playing with fire. What are you going to tell [Druze activist and former MK] Shachiv Shnaan – that he has a mark on his forehead because he isn't Jewish? This law is superfluous. It violates the sanctity of everything to do with full equal rights. The Declaration of Independence calls on Israeli Arabs to take part in building the nation based on full, equal citizenship."

Herzog urged the government to hold a dialogue with the opposition during the drafting of the law. 

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked noted that the principles of the nation-state law exist in the constitutions of "hundreds of countries" around the world.

In 120 countries, the national anthem is anchored in the constitution; in 170 countries, the language is enshrined in the constitution, she said. Many countries enshrined the status of the church in their constitution, too. 

"This law is a historic law and the committee is historic," Shaked said. "Each of the Knesset members here will contribute his content to the law. Committee members, do your most serious work. [This law] will remain with us forever and ever. The State of Israel is Jewish and democratic. I believe that these two values are parallel. The one is not paramount over the other." 

Shaked pointed out that Israel's democratic values are already anchored in a Basic Law. "I think we have a great opportunity to anchor national and Jewish values as well," she said. "The fact of the state being democratic does not conflict with being Jewish. There is consensus in this house that there must be parallel values and they can be."