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Israeli cabinet approves 'Jewish state' law

The Israeli cabinet is yet to approve the final wording of the controversial bill, expected to further heighten tension with Palestinians
Palestinians sit outside al-Aqsa, site of recent clashes, as settlers walk past (MEE / Mahfouz Abu Turk)

After a hotly-contested meeting of the Israeli cabinet, a controversial bill that will legally recognise Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people has been approved, in a move likely to heighten tension between Israelis and Palestinians.

14 of the delegates voted up the proposal, which was opposed by six ministers including Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni, who publicly came to blows with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the bill.

The final text of the bill has not yet been finalised – Sunday’s meeting saw ministers vote on a more extreme version which will later be “softened” in a version to be submitted by Netanyahu, according to Israeli daily Haaretz.

The cabinet meeting room was closed to the press, but journalists sitting in the building reported hearing Israeli politicians shouting at each other from inside.

During the meeting, Netanyahu is reported to have called Livni “weak” over her stance on the issue, with Livni accusing the premier of orchestrating “nonsense just to get back” at her over political differences.

Livni had earlier submitted a version of the same bill – her drafting specifically contained a guarantee that the Jewish state of Israel should maintain “equality for all its citizens.”

Netanyahu’s version, to be voted on in the coming weeks, will not specifically include the word “equality” – however, according to sources who spoke to Haaretz, the Justice Ministry accepts that his wording contains “the spirit of equality.”

Jeremy Man Saltan, a self-described "Knesset [Parliament] insider" who manages social media for right-wing economy minister Naftali Bennett, hoped controversy over the vote could presage the exit of liberal coalition partner Tzipi Livni.

In comments welcoming the bill, Bennett made it clear he hopes the move will strengthen Israel’s ability to deal with growing numbers of asylum seekers and migrants, dubbed “infiltrators” by Israeli law.

"The next time a law meant to stop infiltrators is brought to the High Court of Justice, the court will also have to consider that Israel is the 'nation-state of the Jewish people' and not just 'human dignity and freedom.' This is an important message for the residents of south Tel Aviv and for the entire country."

Southern Tel Aviv is an area renowned for hosting large numbers of migrants from around the world – dozens are regularly forced to sleep rough in Levinsky Park in the heart of the neighbourhood.

The bill comes as Netanyahu faces off against Israel’s High Court of Justice over the detention of migrants.

In September, the court ruled that the Holot detention centre for migrants must be closed within 90 days, after finding that detaining migrants indefinitely violated Israel’s Basic Law of Human Dignity and Freedom.

However, referrals to the centre continued for at least a week after the ruling was handed down, and Netanyahu has vowed to oppose the planned closure.

The decision sparked opposition from those on the Israeli left, as well as from Arab Israeli rights groups.

Salah Mohsen, media director of Adalah, which campaigns for the rights of Arab citizens of Israel, told MEE that the decision will not change the status quo for Palestinians.

“Israel is already defined and acts as a Jewish state – Arabs are second class citizens who face discrimination in every domain in life.

According to a statement from Adalah on Sunday, Israel, which has no formal written constitution, is already defined as a Jewish state according to its 1948 Declaration of Independence.

Mohsen told MEE that, though it will do nothing to change the status quo, the bill is dangerous because it “constitutionalises the current situation of oppression.”

“Instead of moving towards a better situation for minorities and more democratic values, Israel has decided to make this discriminatory definition of the country as a Jewish state into law.”

Yitzhak Herzog, leader of the opposition to the ruling coalition, was also quick to criticise the decision on Sunday, warning that would further ignite sky-rocketing tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.

“The approval of the Jewish state law is an irresponsible step that aims to fuel” Israel’s current position.

The highly-anticipated vote also comes as a vintage video from 1978 surfaces, showing a young Netanyahu, then known as Ben Nitay, calling on the US to oppose the creation of "a second Palestinian state at the expense of the only Jewish state."