'Jewish State' Law Passes Cabinet Vote

Controversial bill passed after right-wing, left-wing ministers clash.

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Hezki Baruch,

Cabinet Meeting
Cabinet Meeting
Flash 90

The Jewish State bill has passed a crucial cabinet vote this afternoon, with 15 votes for and 6 against.

The debate saw right-wing proponents of the bill face-off against mostly left-wing opponents in what was at times an angry exchange.

During the debate, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had strong words for Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, a key opponent of the law.

"If Minister Livni had behaved differently, we would not have reached today's situation. When it comes to other laws she does not behave in this way."

His comments related to Livni's attempt to torpedo the law, an effort in which she took advantage of her control of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation. Livni prevented the committee from approving it, by removing it from the committee's agenda. In response, Netanyahu brought the bill directly to the government's approval, circumventing the Committee for Legislation.

Responding to Netanyahu, Livni shot back: "Is this about the newspaper again?" in a jibe relating to the recent law targeting the pro-Netanyahu Yisrael Hayom paper.

"Yes, but a different paper," Netanyahu quipped.

Science and Technology Minister Yaakov Perry (Yesh Atid) then jumped into the fray.

"This is not the time [for the bill]," Perry stated to Netanyahu. "I know you and know that you know how to behave in a responsible way. This proposal would harm the fabric of [Jewish-Arab] relations."

Netanyahu responded by noting that the Jewish nature of Israel is increasingly being challenged. “The Palestinians refuse to recognize this, and there is also opposition from within – there are those who want to have autonomy in the Galilee and the Negev, and who deny our national rights,” he explained. "It cannot be that Arabs can live in all communities and Jews can not live in Arab communities. What is evolving here is a state within a state."

Netanyahu promises amendments

The bill was proposed by MK Ze'ev Elkin (Likud), and a nearly identical version was proposed by MKs Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home), Yariv Levin (Likud) and Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beytenu).

"The state of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people in which it realizes its aspiration for self determination in accordance with its cultural and historic heritage,” states the bill. “The right to realization of national self determination in Israel is exclusive to the Jewish people.”

The prime minister has promised to amend these last passages, however, to make the law more “moderate.” In his version, Israel's character as the Jewish national state, and its democratic nature, receive equal stress. In the current version, Israel's Jewish character is placed before its democratic nature. However, the current version also states clearly that Israel is a democracy and that it respects the rights of all its citizens.

“People ask who needs this bill; we have managed 66 years without it,” Netanyahu said in the presence of reporters ahead of the meeting. “And I ask, who needs the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty? We managed 45 years without it. We need both,” he said. “Israel is a Jewish democratic state. There are those who want democracy to take precedence over Judaism, and those who want Judaism to take precedence over democracy. In the draft law that I am bringing, both principles are equal and must be given equal consideration.”

If the bill does not receive the support of leftist coalition partners Yesh Atid and Hatnua, and fails to receive the votes of hareidi parties, it will not pass in the plenum. However, Netanyahu insisted that coalition discipline will be enforced in the upcoming preliminary plenum vote on the bill, which is scheduled for Wednesday. That means that coalition members must vote in favor of it. 

The current version also determines that Hebrew is the only official language of Israel, although Arabic enjoys special status. Netanyahu's version will not include this passage, which means Arabic would remain as one of Israel's two official languages.

Both laws state that Jewish law will serve as a source of inspiration for Israel's lawmakers and courts. Should a judge fail to find a solution for a juridical issue, it says, “he should decide it in accordance with the principles of freedom, justice, honesty and peace of the heritage of Israel.”