Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is preparing to codify Israel’s status as a “the national homeland of the Jewish people” into law. (Israel’s current constitution refers to Israel as “Jewish and democratic.”) The government approved the text of the proposed bill on Sunday, and the Knesset will vote on the issue next Monday.
The announcement comes amidst a climate of intensifying tensions with Palestine and a Middle East peace process in shambles. Riots continue to rage in east Jerusalem in the wake of the region’s deadliest bout of violence in almost a decade. The proposed law is set to further damage Israeli-Palestinian relations, already at an alarming low. Not only does the bill propose enshrining Israel’s Jewish character into its constitution, but also includes clauses to allow for Jewish law to act as inspiration for future legislation, and the removal of Arabic as an official language. Detractors warn that minority Israeli Arabs (20% of the population) will be increasingly marginalized as a result.
What’s more, support within the Knesset is split. The bill is backed by Jewish nationalists within Netanyahu’s coalition, but has sparked vocal opposition from the centrist Yesh Atid and Ha Tnuah parties. Critics accuse Netanyahu of moving to placate hardline conservatives in the lead-up to January primaries for the prime minister’s Likud Party. The danger here is that a negative vote could not only endanger Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, but may even prompt new ballots with the powerful Yesh Atid party primed to form a new majority. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, a member of the Ha Tnuah party, warned on Monday, “The prime minister will have to decide whether he wants to fire ministers from his government and break up his coalition because those ministers decided that Israel should be both Jewish and democratic.”
So why the gamble? According to Netanyahu, the law is a reaction to stances adopted by Israel’s Arab rivals, which question the country’s right to exist. Namely Palestine, whose leaders have refused to state their formal acceptance of Israel’s Jewish statehood – a major stumbling block in peace negotiations. Hamas, the Islamist group that governs the Gaza Strip, is particularly outspoken when it comes to Israel’s claim as the Jewish homeland.
But with his latest move, Netanyahu may be burning bridges Israel can ill afford to lose, both at home and abroad. Already Israeli support in the West looks to be waning somewhat, with countries like Spain, Ireland and Great Britain voting in favor of recognition of Palestinian statehood in recent weeks. (Though those votes are largely symbolic, and contingent on a negotiated solution between Palestinians and Israel being reached.) France, too, is wading into the fray: its National Assembly will vote on Palestinian statehood on November 28, followed some ten days later by a Senate vote.
Amid the unusually contentious debate around the law, Netanyahu looks to be bending — the premier has reportedly announced that the proposed bill could be softened. In addition, lawmakers were given several days’ extension to deliberate the bill (the Knesset vote was originally scheduled for Wednesday). But even an amended bill will have a hard time going through, thanks to heated opposition from the Knesset’s centrists, not to mention Israel’s own attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein. If the law is rejected however, Netanyahu may still come out ahead. That is if the prime minister – no stranger to wrangling fractious coalition groups – manages to pay adequate lip service to nationalist factions, all the while avoiding a more explosive fight.