A key factor in the dissolution of the Israeli government in early December was a serious debate around the “Jewish Nation-State” bill, proposed legislation that emphasizes the Jewish ethnic character of the state. Surprisingly, the debate created the impression that the government collapsed over the question of equality for Israel’s Arab citizens. But is this really the core of the debate?
The Jewish Nation-State bill would explicitly codify such principles as ensuring a Jewish demographic majority, establishing Hebrew as the only official language (today Arabic is also an official language) and positioning Jewish religious law as a legitimate source of law for the State of Israel. The proposed bill also makes clear that Israel is a state in which only the Jewish people can exercise self-determination.
The bill caused a serious rift between two political camps. The right-wing parties, the majority in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, lent their full support to the bill, arguing that there is no reason not to enshrine the reality of Israel as a Jewish State in the law, given that the concept lies at the heart of consensus among the Israeli Jewish public. The Zionist center parties, led by now-former Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, forcefully opposed the bill.
In fact, if we closely examine the bill, we might assume that it came from the Zionist center camp itself. First, the bill is essentially a legal anchoring of Israel’s historical “Jewish-democratic state” doctrine. In 2000, the Israeli Supreme Court determined that Israel’s Law of Return (which guarantees the right of Jews anywhere in the world to live in Israel and gain citizenship), the preservation of a Jewish majority, Hebrew as the central language, Jewish holidays, Jewish heritage and the Jewish symbols of the state all comprise the minimal core aspects of the “Jewish state.” The new bill, which adds that “the State of Israel will have a democratic regime,” does not go beyond the Supreme Court’s decision. Furthermore, the bill closely mirrors the ethnic provisions of the draft “Constitution by Consensus,” prepared by the center-left Israel Democracy Institute in 2004-06. At that time, the IDI’s Constitution by Consensus was challenged by the Arab citizens’ “Future Vision” documents, due in part to the Jewish ethnic dominance that prevailed in its clauses.
Second, contrary to the intentions of their right-wing sponsors, the Jewish Nation-State bill actually bolsters the program of “two states for two peoples.” For the first time, the Israeli political right is proposing a Basic Law (a law that is equivalent to a constitutional law in a country that does not have a Constitution) that distinguishes between the “Land of Israel” (Eretz Israel) and the “State of Israel” in regards to the fulfillment of self-determination. The Nation-State bill declares that “the Land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people…” and that “the State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its aspiration for self-determination.” Legal analysts would understand this distinction to mean that Tel Aviv and Hebron, located in the occupied West Bank, are not equal in the eyes of the law. Consequently, for example, the minority opinion of Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy—who found that Gaza is part of the Land of Israel, and thus settlement there constitutes fulfillment of the Jewish people’s self-determination—clashes with the Nation-State bill. Conversely, Livni’s statements as foreign minister under the Ehud Olmert government, in which she contended that Arab citizens should fulfill their collective rights in a future Palestinian state, fits with the Nation-State legislation that denies Arab collective rights in Israel.