Israel's Nation-State Bill: A symptom or disease of Israeli democracy?
The Israeli parliament, Knesset, overnight (from 18 July to 19 July) passed the very controversial Nation-State Bill (NSB), which proclaims Israel as the national home of the Jewish people. Moreover, the Arabic language lost the status of an official language of Israel and was demoted merely to ‘special status’. In addition, NSB also proclaimed Jerusalem as a complete and united capital city of Israel and accepted the Israeli settlement policy as a core national value.
The five-member religious-right government coalition that includes the political parties Likud, United Torah Judaism, Shas, Kulanu, Yisrael Beiteinu and the Jewish Home, led by PM Benjamin Netanyahu, passed this law; the final tally was 62 in favor, 55 opposed and 2 abstained. The approval of this law provoked a very loud critique from Palestinians in Israel, from other minorities in Israel, the rest of the world’s political leaders, as well as the global media.
Constitution of Israel, Basic Laws of Israel, the Nation-State Bill within the Legislative system
Israel, as one of the few states without a written constitution, is founded upon the Basic Laws of Israel, which resemble constitutional laws typical for many states. These constitutional laws can be changed only by a supermajority and they are legally superior to the law. Before Knesset approved the NSB, there were only thirteen basic laws that dealt with the separation of power in Israel, individual liberties, human dignity and civil rights. The NSB extended the Israeli system of Basic Laws. This law also divided Israeli society because it was not one of the many common laws approved or denied in Knesset.
Long-time legislative procedure and timing of the Nation-State Bill
As mentioned above, the very controversial Nation-State Bill represents the highest kind of law and it didn't come surprisingly and suddenly. The legislative procedure actually took over eight years. The first proposal of the NSB dates back to August 3, 2011. At this time, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Avi Dichter, member of Kadima, presented the first draft of the Nation-State Bill and claimed that the purpose of this law was to anchor the basic values of Israel as the Jewish state. The first version also included a provision binding the Jewish state with its democratic character. The final version of this law was mostly affected by Ayeled Shaked, Yariv Levin, and Robert Ilatov, and this version of the law did not have a provision mentioning a democratic principle.
The question is why Netanyahu's government approved this law after the lengthy procedure and not earlier? The result of the presidential elections in the United States had a significant impact. It is hard to imagine that Netanyahu would back this law during the Obama era. PM Netanyahu was just waiting for the right time and it occurred after Donald Trump won the US presidential election. US foreign policy has vastly changed its position towards Israel. Notably, the Trump Administration recognized Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel and moved their diplomatic mission to the Holy City. Also, there was a domestic reason - it is approximately one year before the next parliamentary election and PM Netanyahu had scored positive points for his government after the turbulent months and controversies with his coalition colleagues Moshe Kahlon, Aryeh Deri and Naftali Bennett.
The loud critique for NSB and Israel democracy – threats for minorities?
The approval of the NSB quickly sparked a series of protests in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The usual critique of the NSB is mainly focused against paragraph 1 – Basic principles: Israel as a state just for the Jews; paragraph 3 – Jerusalem as a capital city of Israel; paragraph 4 – only Hebrew as a national language, with Arabic as a second language; and paragraph 7 – the Jewish settlement as a national value and national interest.
The largest protests in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were organized by the Druze community living in Israel. Shaykh Mowafak Tarif, the spiritual leader of Druze in Israel said, ‘This law creates a second-class citizenship category’. It is not surprising that the Druze protested this law, which stands against Israel’s minority. During the War of Independence, Druze’s battalion fought with the Israeli forces against the Arab armies. The Israeli Druze community supported the existence of an independent Israel state, even though they were Arabs living in the British Mandate of Palestine. In comparison with other Shia ethnics, the Druze do not consider themselves Muslim. Nowadays, the Druze fully participate in every aspect of Israeli society and they also serve in the Israeli army.
Moreover, according to EU representatives, NSB excludes all minorities in Israel and is a serious risk to their rights and civil liberties. NSB de facto declares that The State of Israel is just for the Jews, and not the other minorities. A very common critique is linked with paragraph 4 about the national language. Additionally, paragraph 3 and 7 (that concern Jerusalem and Jewish settlement) stand in opposition to Resolution 242.
I am convinced that the NSB was mostly meant as a message to the surrounding Arab states which denied the right of self-determination to the Jewish people, and a message to the minorities living in Israel. In the background of the changing Middle East environment (the Sunni – Shia war and Israel – Iran proxy warfare), it could be a start to an era of new Israeli democracy, but I am afraid about what kind of democracy it would be. Is it still a form of Illiberal democracy or so-called defect democracy? Is it still democracy when it excludes minorities and doesn’t recognize their civil rights?
About the author
Ľubomír Zvada is a Ph.D. student at the Department of Political Science and European Studies at the Palacký University in Olomouc, Czech Republic. His research areas include the Middle East and Israel, Zionism, European Jewry, the Visegrád group, Development of European Political Systems and Contemporary European History.