Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu puts Jewish nationality bill on hold


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday staved off a potential splintering of his governing coalition, at least for now, with an agreement to delay bringing a contentious nationality bill before the Knesset, or parliament.

But the government, beset by constant quarrels, remains on shaky ground, and the Israeli leader is seen as likely to continue backing an array of hard-line measures in response to some of the worst violence to hit Israel in years, a string of attacks by Palestinian assailants that have left 11 people dead in little more than a month.

A vote on the nationality measure, which had been approved Sunday by the Cabinet, could have led to a parliamentary showdown and triggered early elections. Lawmakers were originally scheduled to take up the measure Wednesday.


The bill designates Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Although Israel’s Jewish character is legally anchored in many key documents — including its 1948 Declaration of Independence, which proclaims the country’s commitment to “freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel” — the bill came under fire for provisions that included eliminating Arabic as an official language and opening the door for Jewish religious law to take precedence over democratic practices.

Critics also said the measure could be used to discriminate against Arab citizens, who make up one-fifth of the population.

Centrist coalition members, including Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid, had declared their vehement opposition to the bill, but indicated they would support a softened version that explicitly protected minority rights. Israeli news reports said a revised version was being drafted and that the vote would be put off until a compromise could be reached.

Netanyahu, addressing his Likud faction, promised to push ahead with the measure in some form.

“This bill and the proposals … are expressing the fact that Israel is the national state of the Jewish people and only theirs, along with preserving the rights of every single citizen of the state,” he said.

Israeli news media, however, read the campaign as largely a cynical attempt by Netanyahu to position himself to the right before the Likud Party’s leadership primaries in January, and one that could result in increased international pressure on Israel.

“The prime minister and the Likud right-wing ministers know full well there is no need to this bill. They know there is nothing in it,” Ben-Dror Yemini wrote in the Yediot Aharonot newspaper on Tuesday. “They know its only contribution will be to help the delegitimization campaign against Israel.”

Though under heavy criticism from Western governments on issues such as increased Jewish building in traditionally Arab parts of Jerusalem, Netanyahu last week vowed a harsh response after five Israelis — three of them dual U.S. citizens — were killed by knives and gunfire at a Jerusalem synagogue.

Even before the synagogue attack, Jerusalem for weeks had been the scene of near-constant clashes in parts of the city annexed by Israel after the 1967 Middle East War. And tension continues to simmer over the status of the hilltop shrine known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.

The attacks have prompted stringent countermeasures by authorities, including orders to demolish attackers’ family homes; one was destroyed last week, and another Palestinian family is fighting a demolition order in the Supreme Court. Officials also threaten to strip Palestinian assailants and their families of Jerusalem residency rights.

Sobelman is a special correspondent.

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