The Israeli cabinet meeting descended into a stormy shouting session Sunday, as ministers prepared to vote on a controversial bill defining Israel as the “Jewish state,” with critics including senior ministers expressing concern it would detract from Israel’s democratic nature.
The bill was approved 14 to 6, which would send the legislation to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, for consideration.
Here’s how the Times of Israel described the provisions of the bill which Netanyahu said held an important message:
The bill would enshrine in law Israel’s nature as a Jewish state, reserving what the prime minister called “national rights,” such as the flag and anthem and right to immigrate, for Jews alone. It would also underline Israel’s democratic nature, with equality for all its citizens, according to Netanyahu.
Some 20 percent of the Israeli population is made up of Arab citizens of Israel who are predominantly of the Muslim, Christian and Druze faiths.
“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,” Netanyahu said at the start of the cabinet meeting according to the Jerusalem Post. “In the law that I am bringing, both principles are equal and must be given equal consideration.”
The prime minister said that the country “has equal individual rights for every citizen and we insist on this. But only the Jewish People have national rights: A flag, anthem, the right of every Jew to immigrate to the country, and other national symbols.”
Netanyahu stressed that the law was necessary now in response to those who question the state being the homeland of the Jewish people while at the same time insisting on establishing a Palestinian state.
“The Palestinians refuse to recognize this, and there is also opposition from within,” he said. “I also don't understand those who call for two states for two peoples, but at the same time oppose anchoring that in law. They are quick to recognize a Palestinian national home, but adamantly oppose a Jewish national home.”
At one point the debate became so heated, shouting could be heard from outside the door of the meeting room, a Jerusalem Post reporter observed.
Senior members of opposing political parties told the Israeli media that the law was designed to pander to Netanyahu’s Likud Party base in advance of primaries.
Finance Minister Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party – all of whose ministers voted against the bill – said, “The nationality law being presented to the government is a bad law that was only drafted for the sake of Likud primaries.”
Lapid noted the timing of the vote was particularly poor coming less than a week after Palestinian terrorists killed police officer Zidan Saif, an Israeli Druze, who was posthumously lauded as a hero for saving the lives of Jewish worshippers who survived the Jerusalem synagogue massacre.
“This morning I spoke with the family of Zidan Saif who was killed protecting Jewish worshippers during the terror attack on the synagogue in Jerusalem. What can we say to this family? That he is a second-class citizen?” Lapid asked.
Ahmed Tibi, an Arab member of Knesset said the bill would alienate the Arab-Israeli minority. Tibi was quoted by the Jerusalem Post saying that Israel was now "officially an ethnocentric country that persecutes its minority and discriminates against it using a Basic Law.”
“We will bring this to every international platform, including the UN," Tibi added.
Israeli Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein last week warned in a letter to Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary that while there was nothing wrong with defining Israel as the state of the Jewish people, parts of the bills being considered could negatively impact Israel’s democratic character.
Ha’aretz published quotes from the letter, in which Weinsten wrote the bill “would make a real change to the basic principles of constitutional law as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Basic Laws of the Knesset, and lead to deterioration of the democratic characteristic of the state.”