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Jewish nationality law threatens Israeli coalition

November 24, 2014

The Israeli prime minister has vowed to pass a contentious bill calling for the identification of Israel as a Jewish nation state. The language of the bill has drawn racism accusations and criticism from some officials.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, head of the centrist Hatenuah party, deliver a joint statement at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem February 19, 2013 (Photo: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
Image: Reuters

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Likud Party members on Monday that he was ready to tone down the phrasing of the nationality law bill, which seeks to declare Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people in the country's de facto constitution and delist Arabic as an official language.

Israel's 1948 declaration of independence defines the country as both Jewish and democratic.

"I have to say that this bill and the proposals ... are expressing the fact that Israel is the national state of the Jewish people and only theirs, alongside preserving the rights of every single citizen of the state of Israel," Netanyahu said.

After a heated debate on Sunday, 14 cabinet members voted in favor of such a law, while six voted against it.

Netanyahu argues that enshrining Israel's Jewish character in the constitution was necessary because of continued efforts to delegitimize it.

"There are many who are challenging Israel's character as the nation state of the Jewish people," the premier said on Sunday, adding that apart from the Palestinians' refusal to recognize his country as a Jewish state, there was also an opposition from within.

Israel's parliament is scheduled to vote on the proposed bill on Wednesday but officials say they are considering postponing it to next week. News agency DPA quoted Israel's Channel 2 as saying that the voting had already been delayed by at least seven days following mediation by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Criticism from government officials

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni has warned that any attempt to pass the bill could break the government and force snap elections. She said Monday that she and her moderate partners in the coalition would vote against the legislation.

"The prime minister will have to consider whether he wants to fire ministers in his government and break up his coalition over their opposition to a law that works against an Israel that is both Jewish and democratic," said Livni, who heads The Movement party which has six seats in parliament.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid has also criticized the move. Lapid's 19-seat Yesh Atid, which is Netanyahu's biggest partner in the coalition, had announced it would abstain from voting.

'Sensitive' Israeli-Arab relationship

Opponents of the bill say that it could violate the rights of the country's non-Jewish minority, particularly the Arab population, and would pave the way for Jewish religious laws.

"That will endanger really the very sensitive relationship between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority inside Israel," said Ibrahim Sarsour, an Israeli-Arab lawmaker.

The debate over the nationality law comes amid rising tensions between Israeli Jews and Arabs. Roughly 20 percent of Israel's eight million inhabitants are Arab.

In an attack on November 18, four rabbis and a police officer were killed after two Palestinian cousins burst into a Jerusalem synagogue wielding meat cleavers and a pistol.

shs/jr (AP, dpa)

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