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Israel’s Governing Coalition Split Over Calls To Amend Nation-State Law
Israeli Druze spiritual leader Sheikh Muafak Tarif (C) arrives at a rally where members of his community and their supporters protest against the nation-state law in Tel Aviv, Israel, Aug. 4, 2018. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Israel’s Governing Coalition Split Over Calls To Amend Nation-State Law

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked says Right will veto Defense Minister Gantz’s proposal to pass equality bill

The Israeli government is quarreling over propositions to anchor equality as a constitutional value via a new basic law.

In lieu of a formal constitution, Israel’s parliament has over the years passed a series of “basic laws” that serve as the country’s de facto constitution, defining the roles of the state’s principal institutions, as well as the rights of citizens.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz announced Sunday he would bring an equality bill to the Ministerial Committee on Legislation next week, in the hopes of securing government backing for a basic law ensuring equality for all citizens.

Knesset member Eitan Ginzburg from Gantz’s Blue and White party said the party intends to propose the bill on Sunday. The bill has been discussed by the Knesset in the past but has never gained the necessary support of 61 members to pass as a basic law in the 120-member chamber.

Gantz’s announcement comes after Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, head of the Yisrael Beitenu party, tweeted: “There’s a strong contradiction between the current version of the nation-state law and the praise of [Druze special forces officer Lt. Col.] Mahmoud Kheir el-Din, a hero of Israel who fell in combat. We have an opportunity to fix this law and pass the Declaration of Independence as a basic law.”

Kheir el-Din, who was killed in the Gaza Strip in 2018 and whose name was only recently released for publication, expressed strong opposition to the nation-state law shortly before his death.

Liberman expressed objections to the current text of the nation-state law, whose full title is Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, saying it enshrines the inferior legal status of Druze and other minorities. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party, retweeted Liberman’s statement, adding, “I agree with every word.”

In July 2021, the Supreme Court majority agreed that the law merely declares the obvious − that Israel is a Jewish state − and that this does not detract from the individual rights of non-Jewish citizens, especially in light of other laws that ensure equal rights for all.

Support is rising in Israel for making equality a law-protected right, either by amending the nation-state law or by passing a new law. And yet the bill’s chances of passing into law are slim.

I suggest coalition members stop thinking about trying to change basic laws. It’s not going to happen.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party, responded to Gantz’s and Liberman’s statements, saying, “I suggest coalition members stop thinking about trying to change basic laws. It’s not going to happen. … If needed, Yamina will use its right of veto. We should focus on the challenges ahead.”

Shaked’s office, in a response to an inquiry from The Media Line, commented: “Basic laws require a consensus of all parties. These are not part of the coalition agreements, and therefore trying to pass them in such a complex coalition is nothing but a spin.”

Liberman’s office commented on Shaked’s statement, saying it “hopes to work on the bill in consensus.”

Shaked declined to explain the ideology behind her objection to the bill. In 2019, she explained that the law can’t be changed, as it is designed to prevent the Supreme Court from intervening in the government’s policy against illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers.

The idea of an equality bill has long been under debate by Israeli governments.

First proposed in 1995, supporters intended it to be part of Israel’s basic laws dealing with human and civil rights, but it never passed. In 2018, when the nation-state law was discussed in parliament, some of its critics feared it would pave the way for legally enshrining discrimination against non-Jewish minorities, who make up around 25% of Israel’s population.

After the nation-state law passed, we were left with a very strong legal status for the Jewish majority in Israel, but with no equivalent securing minority civil rights. Basic laws represent the ideological identity of a state, and this law could be a good answer to the nation-state law.

“Passing the bill won’t have too much of a concrete effect on Israeli legal reality,” said Prof. Yuval Shany, a senior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute who holds the Hersch Lauterpacht Chair in Public International Law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“Israel’s Supreme Court already acknowledges equality as a human right to some extent, as it is part of the right to dignity. There is still a gap between the current situation and making equality a constitutional value, but it’s quite minor,” Shany said.

“However, there are still some reasons to make the legislative effort. One of them is the legal status of court decisions, which could change. We’re seeing it now with abortions in the US – the Supreme Court [is apparently about to cancel] a previous decision, and reality changed. A right is better protected when there is a law securing it,” he continued.

Shany, an expert on international law and human rights, has been an advocate of an equality bill for several years now. His part in the efforts to pass the legislation includes writing legal research papers and meeting with members of parliament to discuss the matter. Despite his doubts about the bill’s concrete effects on the judicial system if it passes, he still believes it is important.

“The main reason to pass the bill, in my opinion, is educational. After the nation-state law passed, we were left with a very strong legal status for the Jewish majority in Israel, but with no equivalent securing minority civil rights. Basic laws represent the ideological identity of a state, and this law could be a good answer to the nation-state law,” Shany said.

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