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Arab Israel Conflict
Israel presses on with Jewish state law
From the Financial Times of Sun, 23 Nov 2014 19:14:12 GMT
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2nd from R) arrives to attend the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office on November 23, 2014. Ministers were to discuss a controversial bill to anchor in law Israel's status as the national homeland of the Jewish people.©AFP

Israel’s rightwing government on Sunday pushed forward with a law defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, drawing a heated reaction from both Palestinians – who described it as discriminatory – and moderate Israelis, who said it would compromise their country’s democratic character.

The draft, which is expected to go to the Knesset as soon as this week, was approved after a stormy cabinet meeting of Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government, which is fracturing over security and economic issues and relations with the Palestinians.

Yair Lapid, finance minister, and Tzipi Livni, justice minister, whose centre-right parties are at loggerheads with Mr Netanyahu’s Likud and Naftali Bennett’s far-right Jewish Home parties, voted against the bill, which was criticised widely for both its content and timing.

The move comes at a time when Israeli-Palestinian tensions are escalating over a spate of deadly violence in and around Jerusalem in recent months in which about ten Israeli citizens and the same number of Palestinians have died.

“[Israel] has equal individual rights for every citizen and we insist on this,” Mr Netanyahu said on Sunday ahead of the cabinet meeting, which reportedly saw shouted exchanges between ministers. “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.”

Yehuda Weinstein, Israel’s attorney-general, criticised the draft ahead of the vote, saying that it would compromise basic principles of constitutional law, and threatened “to make the state of Israel’s democratic character shallower”.

Many moderate and leftwing Israelis – including some who support the idea of a law declaring Israel a Jewish state – fear that amid a rightward lurch in politics and waning hopes for peace with the Palestinians, their country is becoming an undemocratic state ruling over a growing Arab population.

Palestinians from both inside and outside Israel’s internationally recognised pre-1967 borders described the draft as “racist”, and said it added to a raft of other discriminatory laws enacted over the past decade.

“The extremist Israeli government is only capable of passing this bill . . . but will never be ready to pass a bill to accept the two-state solution on the 1967 borders,” said Ashraf Khatib, spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

Mr Netanyahu’s government had demanded that the Palestinians recognise Israel as a Jewish state in the most recent round of peace talks aimed at creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, which collapsed in April.

Inside Israel, Palestinians make up about 20 per cent of the population. Their leaders have long complained of discriminatory policies and practices that they say worsened during Israel’s war this summer in Gaza and the upsurge of violence in Jerusalem.

“The Israeli need for this law is not constitutional, rather it is a policy that aims to emphasise that Arab citizenship in Israel was and remains a second-class citizenship, and that Arabs will remain a group that is discriminated against, and will never be equal to the Jewish people,” said Salah Mohsen, spokesman for Adalah, a Haifa-based civil rights group representing Israel’s minority Arabs.

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