Opinion

Israel's Nation-state Bill Needs Borders

The deliberate vagueness of the bill's future geographic scope is at the base of the annexationist right's strategy: to advance a controversial agenda under a feigned cover of statesmanship and consensus

Israeli border police officers in front of a building in the West Bank city of Hebron, July 26, 2017.
Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP

The Jewish nation-state bill needs a border. Not metaphorically, but in actuality. Before any constitutional questions about the nation-state bill come into consideration, the fundamental question is its geographic scope: Is the bill meant to be upheld solely in Israel within the Green Line (or at the most, within an adapted Green Line that includes minimal annexation of communities close to it), or is it meant to one day constitute a legal basis for a state that stretches from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea?

Ostensibly, the nation-state bill, like any Israeli law, refers only to areas within the Green Line. But given that the promoters of the bill have always harbored a great fondness for the idea of annexing the Palestinian Territories, this is not at all certain. The deliberate vagueness of the bill’s future geographic scope is at the base of the annexationist right's strategy: to advance a controversial agenda under a feigned cover of statesmanship and consensus.

The nation-state bill contains only one truly significant clause. This is the only basic section that is not open to broad and conflicting interpretations (What does Jewish mean exactly? What is “Israel’s heritage”? What does special status of a language mean?) and has only one clear practical meaning: legislatively barring Palestinian self-definition. This section says: “The right to national self-definition in the State of Israel may only be exercised by the Jewish people.”

At first glance, this might seem to be of little importance. “There’s nothing there,” some will say. This is the section that states that Israel is realizing the Jewish people’s right to self-definition, as is written in the Israeli Declaration of Independence: “This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.” Other peoples can live in Israel as citizens but do not have the right to establish another nation-state within it.

If the nation-state bill were being advanced in tandem with a final determination of Israel’s eastern border on the basis of an adapted Green Line, coupled with a declaration of an end to any territorial demands east of this border, one could rightly argue that at such a momentous time, when a decisive step is being taken toward dividing the land between a Jewish state and an Arab state, the Jewish people’s unique right to self-definition – within these Israeli borders – should be anchored in law, along with full civil equality for all.

There is a possibility – by no means negligible – that the nation-state bill is designed to lay the legal groundwork for one state that covers the entire area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. In this context, the bill aims to decide the basic political question in Israel by stipulating that a Palestinian state, or state-minus (autonomy), or any other form of Palestinian Arab self-definition between the Jordan and the sea, will not come into existence – ever. This means that this state, a large portion of which – possibly even a majority – will be Arabs, will be defined in the constitution as a Jewish state in which Arabs do not enjoy equality, either national or civil. And that is not nothing. That is practically everything.

In spite of all of its efforts, the annexationist right is well aware that while the Israel within the Green Line enjoys a legitimacy around the world and among its own citizens, that is not the case for those who have settled beyond this line – especially when they’ve settled deep in the territories. Thus, for decades, and particularly in recent years, the annexationist right has been desperately trying to get some of the legitimacy of Israel within the Green Line to rub off on what is beyond it, so that when the time comes, opposition to annexation of the territories will be diminished.

This explains a ceremony to celebrate the settlements in Gush Etzion, under a false mantle of an "official" state event. This explains a bill that could serve as a basis for annexation of the territories – while denying people who live there all individual and collective rights – will be advanced by attacking its opponents as “eager to recognize a Palestinian nation-state and adamantly opposed to a Jewish nation-state,” as Netanyahu put it.

Many cannot easily point to substantive sections of this bill that they oppose, but because they can smell hidden intentions here, they object and say things like, “It’s unnecessary” or “It’s harmful” or “A constitution is not needed.” For the most part, these are justified and correct arguments, but they fail to expose the annexationist right’s strategy of feigning no untoward motives (“So you’re against a Jewish state?”; “Only the Arabs deserve rights?”; “A state is fine for the Palestinians but not for the Jews?”). So the proper, and politically wise, response to the annexationist right’s attempt to use the nation-state bill to further advance its vision of one state between the river and the sea in which only the Jews enjoy national and civil rights is: You know what? Fine, you can go right ahead with a nation-state law – as long as you create a border too.