Israel's Jewish homeland proposal could further heighten tension

Israel's Jewish homeland proposal could further heighten tension
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, arrives at his Jerusalem office Sunday to attend a weekly Cabinet meeting. (Jim Hollander / AFP/Getty Images)

Israel's Cabinet on Sunday gave its approval to legislation defining Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people, a measure critics decried as racist and a threat to democracy.

At the same time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the drafting of legislation that would allow the revoking of Jerusalem residency for Palestinians who carry out terrorist attacks, and that of their families as well.

The moves were likely to fuel tensions between Israel and its Arab citizens, who make up about 20% of the population, and between Israeli authorities and the 300,000 Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem, which was annexed by Israel in 1967 in a move that was not internationally recognized. Most of the Palestinians have residency rights but not citizenship.

Israel has been on edge in the wake of attacks by Palestinians that have killed 11 people since Oct. 22, including five who were slain last week at a Jerusalem synagogue.

The homeland measure, if finalized by the Knesset, or parliament, would become part of Israel's "basic law," or legislation forming a de facto constitution. Although the principle of Israel's essentially Jewish character is legally enshrined elsewhere, this would be the rough equivalent of a constitutional amendment, giving it heavy symbolic weight at a sensitive time.

The issue is an inflammatory one, with potentially broad implications for Israel's future, either side by side with a future Palestinian state or as a single entity incorporating what would inexorably become an Arab majority.

But most observers see short-term coalition politics as the driving force behind the current debate, as Netanyahu jockeys to consolidate his support among his right-wing base, and more centrist elements of his government gird themselves for a confrontation, perhaps as early as this week, that could lead to a splintering of the ruling coalition.

Since taking office in 2009, Netanyahu has demanded that Palestinians recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jews as part of any permanent peace agreement. Sunday's Cabinet vote — during what was reported to have been a stormy session — approved elements of two versions drafted by coalition lawmakers and supported by the prime minister.

One version of the bill would designate Hebrew as Israel's only official language and grant Arabic an unspecified "special status" instead. Arabic has been an official language alongside Hebrew since the days of the British Mandate over Palestine.

Netanyahu said the law was necessary to counter those challenging Israel from within and without. Finance Minister Yair Lapid, however, suggested the tough measures were spurred by upcoming leadership primaries for the prime minister's Likud faction.

Lapid told Israeli news media of his condolence call to the family of Zidan Seif, a Druze policeman killed last week fighting the two Palestinian synagogue assailants. "What shall we tell his family now, that he was rendered a second-class citizen because Likud has primaries?" he asked sarcastically.

Even before legislation on revoking Jerusalem residency rights of Palestinian attackers and their families, Interior Minister Gilad Erdan on Sunday stripped the permanent residency of Mahmoud Nadi, a Palestinian who drove a suicide bomber to Tel Aviv in 2001 for an attack that killed 21 Israelis.

Also Sunday, an Israeli border policeman was indicted in a Jerusalem court in the shooting that killed Nadim Nuwara, a 17-year-old Palestinian, in the West Bank in May. The unidentified policeman was charged with manslaughter and is suspected of firing live ammunition against regulations and lying to investigators about it.

Sobelman is a special correspondent.


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