Commentary

Israel's Nationality Bill Proves Divisive, as the Government Falls

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

In one of its final acts, the Netanyahu government proposed a new bill aimed at recognizing Israel’s Jewish character, acknowledging Jewish law as a source for legislation and no longer recognizing Arabic as the second official language. The law is said to have contributed to the fall-out between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other government ministers who objected to a law many observers believe would contribute to the country’s further isolation. International isolation is certainly one concern, but as economic reports following the announcement of new elections in a few months’ time demonstrate, a short-term economic downturn is to be expected.

The response within Israel to the so-called nationality bill has been mixed. There are those like Yedioth Ahronoth’s Rafael Castro who believe the proposal of the bill amounted to a brave political act, but could lead to the further isolation of the country: “This bill poses a real problem not to Israeli Arabs, but to the post-Zionist intelligentsia which will now have to accept that their country openly defines itself as the national home of the Jewish people. The days when leftists could market their country as democratic to the outside world and Jewish to their domestic electorate are over....The Jewish nation-state bill is possibly the bravest declaration about the State of Israel’s identity that the Knesset has ever voted on....Having said this, being brave does not always mean being smart. This bill could catalyze the isolation of Israel in the international arena....So far Israel has disguised itself, now it accepts itself as what everyone thought it was. Although coming out is hard, to live in deceit and self-denial is even harder – and more destructive.”

Aviad Kleinberg chastises supporters of the law for attempting to create a two-tiered citizenship system, where Arabs are considered unequal to Jews before the law. The problem, Kleinberg argues, is that the law sees “Arabs as a problem….The state is making it clear to them in countless ways that they are not partners with equal rights. At the most, they are tolerable....By the way, we don’t need surveys and sophisticated articles to know this; a pair of eyes will suffice. And whoever wants to see it can actually find the big things in the small details....The State of Israel conveys the message that there are those who are equal and those who are less equal. Now it wants to turn it into a law.”

Supporters of the law, on the other hand, accuse opposition politicians of putting their political futures first, at the risk of isolating the country. In an op-ed for the Jerusalem Post, Oded Revivi, the mayor of Efrat, believes the law would address a historic injustice by making Jewish law the primary source of constitutional law: “The legal system almost completely ignored Jewish law, which judges were and are required to take into consideration. One is that when Israeli politicians use lofty language, their objectives are sometimes actually quite lowly. When they speak about their concern for the future of the State of Israel and its international standing, it would be most worthwhile to remind them that they themselves are causing the greatest damage to the state, because if Livni and her friends on the Left see the proposed nationality law as racist and irresponsibly go about casting aspersions on the State of Israel and its laws, then we shouldn’t be surprised when such activities increase the world’s enmity toward Israel.”

Regional observers have been less forgiving in their appraisal of the law. A Saudi Gazette editorial calls the law “undemocratic” and “racist,” and sees it as an attempt by rightwing Jewish politicians to push Israeli Arab citizens out of the country: “There is an obvious attempt by Israel these days to make Israel as Jewish as possible and to erase any affiliation it has with Arabs....Lieberman says he favors ceding Arab-majority areas in northern Israel to a future Palestinian state and providing economic incentives for Arab-Israelis — about 20 percent of Israel’s population of eight million — to encourage them to emigrate....As for Netanyahu’s parliamentary bill to formalize Israel’s status as a Jewish state, it will institutionalize the status of Arab-Israelis as second-class citizens. The bill is anti-democratic and racist. Netanyahu’s request may seem innocuous on the face of it, but the implications can be immense for millions of non-Jewish Palestinians living in Israel, the West Bank, and other parts of the world.”

An editorial in The Peninsula also takes aim at the anti-democratic tendencies reflected in the bill, warning that Netanyahu’s actions “are pushing Israel into a dangerous spot’’: “The bill is aimed at stripping Israeli Arabs of their key rights. It would recognize Israel’s Jewish character, institutionalize Jewish law as an inspiration for legislation and de-list Arabic as a second official language.... Netanyahu and his rightist colleagues are pushing Israel into a dangerous spot. The Jewish state is facing international isolation under him, and Western public support for his government’s illegal actions is dwindling. The Jewish bill will do more damage than good. Israel has been priding itself on its democratic credentials, trumpeting that it’s the only democracy in a region of autocracies. Democracy advocates inclusion; equality of all citizens is its basic principle, and discrimination destroys its very foundation. The bill will make Israeli democracy unique — one that divides citizens and creates walls, very much unlike the European and American models Tel Aviv has been bragging about.”

Even though the split within the government has been evident for some time, there are indications that pushing through the nationality law made the presence of other coalitional partners untenable, leading to Netanyahu’s calling for new elections. The government’s record was such that the Haaretz editorial staff characterized it as “one of the worst in Israel’s history. It’s hard to list one achievement, while the damage was great. Foreign and security policies were suicidal. The government halted the peace process and accelerated annexation steps in the West Bank while upsetting the delicate status quo on the Temple Mount. It undercut democracy’s foundations with its repeated efforts to pass bills against illegal entry into Israel, its challenge of High Court rulings and its racist nation-state bills.

Given Haaretz’s traditional left-leaning bias, one could be tempted to dismiss its assessment of the government’s record. However, even if the impact of government policies does not amount to the failure described by Haaretz’s editorial staff, there is no arguing with a report by Globes, Israel’s business daily, that the dissolution of the government at this particular juncture has hurt domestic economic stability and sent the markets tumbling: “The political chaos in Israel and the decision to call early Knesset elections are continuing to sharply weaken the shekel....The dizzying depreciation of the shekel in just a few hours makes tangible the gravity of the harm that the breakup of the government is doing to market trust in Israel's political leadership, which may have the most negative impact on the Israeli economy and hit growth in 2015....Paralyzing systems, freezing reforms, the absence of a finance minister and the political uncertainty that will occur in the coming months of the election campaign will only strengthen the pressure on the shekel and deter investors.”


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