A draft law on Israel’s nationhood, passed by a two-thirds majority in the Israeli cabinet, has ignited heated debate within Israel, sending Arab Israelis into a righteous rage and eliciting harsh criticism from Israel’s leftists, liberals, and centrists alike.
The bill, drafted by the ultra-rightist coalition partner Zeev Elkin, defines Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people.” If approved by the Knesset, it will deny or diminish the basic rights of Arab Israelis, who constitute one fifth of the country’s population.
The decision by Netanyahu’s government to approve what is called alternately the nation-state law, or the Jewish nationhood law, has infuriated not only members of the opposition, but partners in the current government coalition.
Palestinians, whether living in or outside Israel, described the law as racist, claiming that it was a form of ethnic cleansing, and warned that it paves the way to transfer or forcible displacement.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said that the Israeli government, by approving the law, has placed further obstacles before the peace process. “This move is rejected and it is running into fierce opposition in the ranks of the government and the Knesset and among the Israeli public,” Abbas said.
Six current ministers in Netanyahu’s government oppose the law, which is still to be debated in the Israeli Knesset.
Nabil Amr, a former Palestinian information minister, said that Netanyahu’s government, by approving this draft law, is incurring the ire not only of the Palestinians but of its coalition partners and the Israeli public at large.
One of the paramount obstacles to peace talks in recent negotiations has been Israel’s demand that the Palestinians recognise the “Jewishness of the state,” which they declined to do for reasons related to the rights of Israeli Arabs to equal citizenship, and also to the rights of Palestinian refugees, under international law, to return to their homes.
Instead of the Palestinians having to ponder this thorny issue, the Israeli prime minister “returned the ball to his own court, starting a heated debate among the Jews themselves,” Amr said.
According to Amr, all “sane” Israelis have voiced strong opposition to the draft law, as it jeopardises peace and entrenches Israel’s international isolation.
Former president Shimon Peres and current Israeli President Reuven Rivlin both oppose the move. Several Israeli parties, including Labour and Meretz, also denounced the draft law as disruptive and divisive.
“The idea of coexistence among religions and between the majority and the minority has been robbed of its essence,” Amr said.
Antoine Shalhat, a researcher in the Palestinian Centre for Israeli Studies (Madar), said that the law would complicate the prospects for peace.
“The law will block the way to a solution of the Palestinian problem, reinforce the Jewish narrative about Palestine … and suggest that the Palestinians were all along mistaken to resist [occupation],” Shalhat said.
If there is a conflict between the Jewish and democratic aspects of Israel, the law will “give prominence” to Jewishness over democracy, he added. “The law will undermine any liberal or democratic tendencies in Israeli society, while asserting the values and principles of the extreme right.”
Although Israel has always discriminated against the Arabs, it is possible for Arab Israelis at present to file lawsuits demanding some of their rights on the basis of equal citizenry. If the Jewish nationhood law is passed, the entire Israeli legal system will no longer be of help.
“The Jewishness of the state will be enshrined in the constitution and it will be hard, once the law is passed, for the Israeli legal system to redress cases of racist discrimination against Arab Israelis,” Shalhat said.
The law is a sign that Israel is becoming more “insecure, rightwing, and self-centred,” he added.
Likud MK Miri Regev has prepared another draft law to ensure that all Israeli parliamentarians have to swear allegiance to Israel as “a Jewish and democratic state.” Her proposal is designed to undermine the credibility of the 11 Arab Israeli members of the 120-member Israeli legislature.
The Jewish nationhood law could also give legitimacy to remapping schemes, such as that supported by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who is also the leader of the rightwing Yisrael Beiteinu Party. Lieberman has suggested incorporating high-density Arab areas in northern Israel into a future Palestinian state.
His proposals, focused on the areas of Wadi Arab and Muthallath, have been sharply criticised by Arab Israeli MKs as well as the 300,000 inhabitants of the named areas.
Speaking at a Ben Gurion memorial ceremony last week, Shimon Peres described the draft law as “an attempt to exploit Israel’s Declaration of Independence for short-term political gains.”
According to Peres, the Jewish nationhood law attempts to “distort and confuse the Declaration of Independence document for political interests that would distance us from the document and also from our values and love for others, [leading to] superfluous debate and excessive and unnecessary bickering, in a manner that may turn the conflict into a religious one.”
The former president warned, “The nationhood law may weaken Israeli society and undermine the status of Israel as a democratic state at home and abroad.”
President Rivlin, for his part, urged politicians to “place national interest above personal interests.” Addressing a gathering at the Ben Gurion memorial, Rivlin stressed the need to “resolve differences in Israeli society from a point of view of national responsibility.”
Arab MK Taleb Abu Arar said that the Jewish nationhood law would make Arabs subject to Jewish law and suppress Palestinian nationality, culture and language. Speaking at a Knesset session, Abu Arar called the draft law a “form of transfer” which “reinforces racism and hatred.
“The law proves beyond doubt that Israel is not a democracy but an ethnic democracy for the Jews, one that demolishes Arab homes, turns their holy places into museums and bars, and tries to hurt the Arabs in a systemic manner.”
The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) recognised Israel through the Oslo Accords of 1993, signed by Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin. Palestinian politicians have so far resisted pressure to recognise Israel’s Jewishness, as the concept may further undermine the rights of Palestinians living in Israel, the occupied territories and other countries.
According to a statement by the PLO Executive Committee, the Jewish nationhood law is designed to undermine “the solution of two states.” In its statement, the PLO said that the draft law, if passed, might be seen as “unilateral abrogation of the [Oslo Accords] document of mutual recognition signed in 1993.”
The draft law would also “sanction encroachment on [non-Jewish] religious and holy places,” the PLO warned.
The Jewish nationhood law is “a racist political decision aiming to complete the usurpation of Palestinian land and rights in violation of international laws and treaties … and absolve the Israeli occupation [government] of its responsibility for the human tragedies and … crimes against the Palestinians who have been displaced since 1948,” the PLO said.
Hamas, which has so far refrained from recognising Israel, said, “The Israeli decision sounds the alarm for all Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims.”
Israel, Hamas added, is waging “a doctrinal and religious war based on Israeli mythology … in order to control the entire region, steal its wealth and humiliate its people.”