A controversial bill that officially defines Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people has been approved by cabinet despite warnings that the move risks undermining the country’s democratic character.
Opponents, including some cabinet ministers, said the new legislation defined reserved “national rights” for Jews only and not for its minorities, and rights groups condemned it as racist.
The bill, which is intended to become part of Israel’s basic laws, would recognise Israel’s Jewish character, institutionalise Jewish law as an inspiration for legislation and delist Arabic as a second official language.
Arab Muslims and Christians make up 20% of Israel’s population.
The cabinet passed the bill by a 14-7 majority after reports of rancorous exchanges during the meeting, including between the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and his justice minister, Tzipi Livni.
The bill, which still requires the Knesset’s approval to become a law, comes as tensions between Israelis and Palestinians rise sharply, and friction within Israel’s Arab minority grows.
Opponents include two of the more centrist parties in Netanyahu’s fragile coalition – which say the bill is being pushed through with forthcoming primaries in the prime minster’s rightwing Likud party in mind – and senior government officials including the attorney general.
According to many critics, the new wording would weaken the wording of Israel’s declaration of independence, which states that the new state would “be based on the principles of liberty, justice and freedom expressed by the prophets of Israel [and] affirm complete social and political equality for all its citizens, regardless of religion, race or gender”.
Among those to voice their opposition was the finance minister, Yair Lapid, who said he had spoken to the family of Zidan Saif, a Druze policeman killed in last week’s deadly attack on a Jerusalem synagogue.
“What will we tell his family? That he is a second-class citizen in the state of Israel because someone has primaries in the Likud?” he asked.
Netanyahu argued that the law was necessary because people were challenging the notion of Israel as a Jewish homeland.
“There are many who are challenging Israel’s character as the national state of the Jewish people. The Palestinians refuse to recognise this and there is also opposition from within.
“There are those, including those who deny our national rights, who would like to establish autonomy in the Galilee and the Negev.
“Neither do I understand those who are calling for two states for two peoples but who also oppose anchoring this in law. They are pleased to recognise a Palestinian national state but strongly oppose a Jewish national state.”
According to reports in the Hebrew media, the attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, has also expressed concern, shared by some ministers, that the new law would effectively give greater emphasis to Israel’s Jewish character at the expense of its democratic nature. A number of Israeli basic laws use the term “Jewish and democratic”, giving equal weight to both. The new law would enshrine only the Jewish character of the state.
Netanyahu appeared to confirm that there would be differential rights for Israeli Jews and other minorities. He said that while all could enjoy equal civil rights, “there are national rights only for the Jewish people – a flag, anthem, the right of every Jew to immigrate to Israel and other national symbols.”
Cabinet ministers, including Netanyahu, separately proposed stripping Palestinian attackers of their residency rights in occupied East Jerusalem in response to a wave of deadly violence.
“It cannot be that those who harm Israel, those who call for the destruction of the state of Israel, will enjoy rights like social security,” Netanyahu said, adding that the measure would complement house demolitions and serve as a deterrent.
Critics, however, have condemned the measures as racist said that they could further escalate tensions.
The cabinet met as fresh reports of continuing violence emerged. In Gaza, the Palestinian health ministry said Israeli forces had shot dead a Palestinian on Sunday, the first such fatality since a 50-day Gaza war ended in August.
In the West Bank, a Palestinian home was torched on Sunday. No one was hurt in the fire, which gutted the home in the village of Khirbet Abu Falah near Ramallah, local residents said.
“The settlers came here and they hit the door, but I refused to open,” said Huda Hamaiel, who owns the house. She said they then broke a terrace window and hurled a petrol bomb inside.
“Death to Arabs” and another slogan calling for revenge were also painted on the walls of Hamaiel’s home, hallmarks of Jewish extremists’ so-called “price tag” attacks against Palestinian dwellings and mosques and Christian church property.