Photo Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg / POOL
The weekly cabinet meeting, at PM Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem, on Sunday, November 23, 2014.

Fierce debate, both inside Israel and abroad, has been raging over a piece of legislation that would become a Basic Law. This legislation, dubbed “the Nationality Bill”, would enshrine in law the definition of Israel as a state of the Jewish people.

Basic Laws are the building blocks of Israel’s Constitution. In 1948 the Constituent Assembly and the First Knesset were unable to put together a constitution. In the absence of a constitution, the Knesset began to create legislation on various subjects that would, together with an appropriate introduction and other necessary additions, become the constitution at a later date.

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While the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel uses the term “Jewish State”, it never definitively designates Israel as a nation-state of the Jewish people. The closest it comes to that is the sentence “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”. The current legislation, if passed, would essentially add the definition of Israel as the state of the Jewish people to the future constitution of the country.

There are actually three different proposals for the text of the bill. One was submitted by Likud MK Zev Elkin. Elkin, who is also the coalition chairman, proposed legislation that is considered the strongest worded of the three proposals – his bill states that Israel is the national homeland of the Jewish people and the right of self-determination there is exclusively for the Jewish people. It also specifies Hebrew as the only official language of the country.

Another submission was presented by three members of the Knesset – MK Ayelet Shaked of the HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home) party, MK Yariv Levin of the Likud, and Robert Ilatov of Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Is Our Home) party. This proposal does not include a clause about Hebrew language, and does include a statement affirming Israel as a democratic state.

Both versions designate Jewish state symbols such as the national anthem and seal, the use of the Hebrew calendar, and freedom of access to holy places.

A third proposal is to be submitted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud), though it has not been written yet.

The debate over the bill is stormy enough that many worry it threatens the current ruling coalition in the Knesset. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who heads the Ha’Tnuah (the Movement) party, has already announced she will not vote for the bill on the Knesset floor. Should she vote against it, she is effectively leaving the ruling coalition. However, she may choose to abstain, which would allow her to continue to sit in the government.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid, founder of the Yesh Atid (There Is A Future) party, has said publicly that he won’t support the legislation as it is currently worded; while he claims to not be against a nationality law, he values the democratic nature of Israel too much to make it secondary to its Jewish nature.

Lapid’s party agrees with his conclusions. MK Dov Lipman of Yesh Atid told Tazpit News Agency that “Israel is the Jewish state as it is defined in our Declaration of Independence. The Jewishness of the state is pervasive in every aspect of life here, including respecting those who aren’t Jewish which is a core Jewish value. Therefore, I do not support this legislation as it accomplishes nothing positive and it only causes damage both in terms of our relationship with minorities in Israel and with the international community.”

MK Ayelet Shaked, who co-authored one of the versions of the bill, disagrees with Lipman’s assertion. “Minorities in Israel already receive full civil rights. The Nationality bill does not affect the civil rights of minorities – if anything, it gives them standing in a Basic Law,” Shaked explained to Tazpit News Agency. “And the international community needs to understand that Israel is the national homeland of the Jewish people, and is entitled to self-determination there.”

This bill is not a new initiative, or even a right wing one. The Institute for Zionist Strategies had written a draft of the bill as early as 2009. A call for a nation-state bill was included in the platform for the Kadima party, which at the time was headed by Tzipi Livni. In 2010, then-Kadima MK (and former head of the Shin Bet) Avi Dichter proposed the IZS bill in the Knesset. The bill he proposed is the exact same bill, word for word, that Zev Elkin is proposing now.

Tazpit News Agency spoke with Adi Arbel of the Institute of Zionist Strategies (IZS), who commented on the change in Livni’s stance on the bill throughout the years. Arbel, an IZS Project Manager, has been very involved with the bill from its inception as an idea in 2008. “Tzipi Livni was the first person that IZS approached in 2009 to support this bill in the Knesset,” Adi said to Tazpit News Agency. “We worked with her for six months. It was only when Livni decided it was more politically expedient to stay quiet as the Chairwoman of the Opposition that we went to work with Avi Dichter instead.”

“I don’t think she is against this bill, or for this bill – I don’t think she has an opinion, other than what she thinks is best for her political positioning,” Arbel explained.

The bill has passed its reading in the Cabinet by a vote of 15-6, and will be brought for a reading on the Knesset floor. If it passes, it will go to committee to have its wording finalized, and then brought for a second and third reading on the floor. If the bill passes its third reading, it will become law.

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