Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Israel's controversial proposal for a "Basic Law: Israel– the National State of the Jewish People"

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Update from AIJAC

November 27, 2014
Number 11/14 #05

Much is being written about a controversial Israeli cabinet decision on Sunday to send to the Knesset a "Basic Law" - that is a special law with constitutional status in Israel - that will enshrine into law Israel's existing identity as the "nation-state of the Jewish people."  (A first vote on the bill in Israel's Knesset is now scheduled for next Wednesday) Moreover, much of what is being written, both in Israel and internationally, including in Australia, appears to be riddled with factual inaccuracies and contradictions about key elements of the proposal. This Update is intended to provide background and analysis on what the cabinet decision actually means, the history of the proposal, and why there are both strong supporters and strong opponents of it in Israel. 

First is the actual text of the Israeli cabinet decision - which serves to correct many of the misconceptions about the proposal. This includes primarily some "principles" on which the final bill must be formulated by the Knesset, which read very much like the actual text of the bill itself the Government wants to see voted on. These principles make it clear that contrary to reports, the final bill, if it ever comes to a full vote of the Knesset, will not demote the status of Arabic as an official national language in Israel, not prioritise Jewishness over democracy - things that have been falsely attributed to the cabinet decision because they were present in some of the three proposed private bills on the subject that were brought to Cabinet, but are clearly not in the Government "principles" which are intended to supersede these. To see the actual text of the decision about which all the fuss is being made, CLICK HERE.

Next up is a backgrounder from BICOM explaining more about what the Cabinet actually decided, the arguments for and against the proposed "Basic Law" and the historical background. This highlights the portion of the Cabinet's "principles" that correct the notion that this bill will prioritise Israel's Jewish character over its democratic one, and also provides some explanation of the political controversy the proposal has generated. Finally, it looks at the history of the efforts in Israel to define the country as a "Jewish and Democratic state". For the essential background to the discussion about this bill, CLICK HERE. Another good background - including a good assessment of what legal effects this bill would actually have - come from Ben Sales of the JTA.

Finally, we offer an important article from Haviv Rettig Gur of the Times of Israel correcting some misconceptions about where the impetus for this bill originated. He explains that the idea of a basic law setting out Israel's status as the "Nation State of the Jewish people" was not an idea that emanated from the "far right" in Israel as usually alleged, but was a centrist idea which evolved in response to some political demands made by Israeli Arab groups that Israel must end any identification with Jewishness and instead grant the Arab minority "political autonomy" and a special constitutional role. He also points out that one of the earlier versions of the proposed bill - but not the principles agreed to by the Cabinet - was originally similar to one proposed by the centrist Kadima party then under the leadership of current Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, currently a prominent opponent of the bill. For more on the genesis of this legislative proposal, CLICK HERE.

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Cabinet communique

23 Nov 2014

 

At the weekly Cabinet meeting today (Sunday, 23 November 2014):

1. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made the following remarks:

..."Today, I will submit to the Cabinet the nationality law and the principles that I believe need to guide this legislation. The State of Israel is the national state of the Jewish People. It has equal individual rights for every citizen and we insist on this. But only the Jewish People have national rights: A flag, anthem, the right of every Jew to immigrate to the country, and other national symbols. These are granted only to our people, in its one and only state.
 
I hear from people who say 'Who needs this law? We've managed without it for 66 years.' And I ask: Who needed Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty? We managed without it for 45 years. But both are necessary. Israel is a Jewish and democratic state. There are those who would like the democratic to prevail over the Jewish and there are those who would like the Jewish to prevail over the democratic. And in the principles of the law that I will submit today both of these values are equal and both must be considered to the same degree.
 
This law is also needed now for another reason: There are many who are challenging Israel's character as the national state of the Jewish people. The Palestinians refuse to recognize 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 recognize a Palestinian national state but strongly oppose a Jewish national state.
 
On the eve of last Independence Day, I stood in the hall where the Declaration of Independence was signed in Tel Aviv and I promised to submit this legislation to the Cabinet  and I am doing so today. I have not softened it and I have not changed anything. I have submitted the principles of the law that I believe in, the same principles that appear in the Declaration of Independence, the same principles that I absorbed in the Zionist sprit from my father, who absorbed them from Zeev Jabotinsky and from Binyamin Zeev Herzl.
 
Around the nationality law, and around other issues, I hear ultimatums, diktat and threats of quitting from various parts of the coalition; a country cannot be run this way. We must concentrate on strengthening security against waves of extremist Islam and the Iranian nuclear danger, on strengthening Israel's economy and increasing citizens' welfare – and not on threats. I believe that the heads of the parties in the coalition will unite and work in this spirit...."

...5. The Cabinet discussed three versions of draft Basic Law: Israel – the National State of the Jewish people, that of MK Zeev Elkin, of MK Ayelet Shaked and MK Yariv Levin, and of MK Robert Ilatov.
 
The Cabinet decided to support Prime Minister Netanyahu's draft principles (see attached annex below).
 
The Cabinet decided to support, in preliminary Knesset discussion, the aforementioned three draft versions on condition that their sponsoring MKs agree that their draft versions would be attached to the Government version to be presented by Prime Minister Netanyahu, which will be formulated on the basis of the principles detailed in the annex below, and will be adapted to it. The Government draft will be formulated in coordination with Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein.

 
Annex of Principles
 
I. Objective
 
Defining the State of Israel as the national state of the Jewish people, and anchoring the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in the spirit of the principles of the Declaration of Independence.
 
II. Basic principles
 
The Land of Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people and the place of the establishment of the State of Israel.
 
The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people in which the Jewish People realizes its right to self-determination in accordance with its cultural and historic heritage.
 
The right to realize national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.
 
The State of Israel is democratic, based on the foundations of freedom, justice and peace in light of the visions of the prophets of Israel, and upholds the individual rights of all its citizens according to law.
 
III. Symbols of the State
 
The national anthem is Hatikvah.
 
The national flag is white with two sky-blue stripes close to the margins and a sky-blue Star of David in the center.
 
The national emblem is a seven-branched menorah with two olive branches at its sides and the word 'Israel' below.
 
IV. Return
 
All Jews are eligible to immigrate to the country and receive citizenship of the state according to law.
 
V. Ingathering of the Exiles and Strengthening Links with the Jewish People in the Diaspora
 
The State will act to gather the exiles of the Jewish people and strengthen links between Israel and Jewish communities in the Diaspora.
 
VI. Assistance to Jews in Distress
 
The State will act to assist Jews in distress and in captivity due to their being Jews.
 
VII. Heritage
 
The State will act to preserve the historical and cultural heritage and tradition of the Jewish people and to enshrine and cultivate it in the country and in the Diaspora.
 
All educational institutions that serve the Jewish public in the country will teach the history, heritage and tradition of the Jewish people.
 
The State will act to enable all residents of Israel, regardless of religion, race or nationality, to preserve their culture, heritage, language and identity.
 
VIII. Official Calendar
 
The Hebrew calendar is the official calendar of the State.
 
IX. Independence Day and Remembrance Day
 
Independence Day is the national holiday of the State.
 
Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel's Wars and Holocaust Heroes and Martyrs Remembrance Day are the official remembrance days of the State.
 
X. Public holidays
 
The regular public holidays of the State of Israel are the Sabbath and the Jewish holidays on which no worker shall be employed except under conditions to be defined by law; members of recognized faiths shall be entitled to rest on their Sabbaths and holidays.
 
XI. Jewish Law
 
Jewish law shall serve as a source of inspiration for the Knesset
 
If a court shall consider a legal question that requires a decision and not find an answer in legislation, precedent or clear inference, it shall render a decision in light of the principles of freedom, justice, fairness and peace of the heritage of Israel.
 
XII. Maintaining the Holy Places
 
The Holy Places shall be guarded against desecration, any other damage and against anything that is liable to infringe on freedom of access by worshippers to the places that are holy to them or on their feelings toward those places.
 
XIII. Infringement of rights
 
There shall be no infringement of rights according to the basic laws except by law that befits the values of the State of Israel, that is designed for a worthy purpose and which does not exceed that which is required.
 
XIV. Amendment
 
The basic law shall not be amended except by a basic law that is approved by a majority of MKs.

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BICOM Briefing: Proposed legislation on a ‘Jewish State’

Last update: 25/11/2014, 10.00 GMT

Key Points

  • The Israeli government is divided over proposed legislation that will define Israel’s Jewish and democratic character.
  • A majority in the Cabinet has decided that a more moderate version of the bill, proposed by Prime Minister Netanyahu, will ultimately become the official government version.
  • Nonetheless, the first reading of the current draft, which includes more controversial clauses that will ultimately be dropped, has been delayed until 3 December to avoid a coalition crisis.

What legislation has been proposed?

  • On Sunday 23 November, after a heated debate which deeply divided the coalition, the Israeli Cabinet voted to bring to the Knesset a bill entitled ‘Basic Law: Israel – the National State of the Jewish People’ which would define the Jewish and democratic character of the state. In a confusing political process, multiple version of the same bill, proposed by Knesset members on the right of the coalition, were voted on by the cabinet. However, it was agreed that the official government version would be a more consensual draft to be based on principles outlined by Prime Minister Netanyahu.
  • Netanyahu’s proposed draft defines its objective as “Defining the State of Israel as the national state of the Jewish People, and anchoring the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in the spirit of the principles of the Declaration of Independence.” It goes on to state that the right of national self-determination is unique to the Jewish people in the State of Israel, whilst also stating that, the state, “upholds the individual rights of all its citizens according to law”. The bill states that Israel will cultivate Jewish culture and heritage whilst also stating that, “The State will act to enable all residents of Israel, regardless of religion, race or nationality, to preserve their culture, heritage, language and identity.” It commits Israel to assist Jews  in distress, and also formally defines Israel’s flag, anthem and national holidays. With respect to Jewish law, it states only very vaguely that “Jewish law shall serve as a source of inspiration for the Knesset.”
  • The more controversial versions of the bill which will apparently not be taken forward, include clauses which define Hebrew as Israel’s sole national language to the detriment of Arabic, enhance the influence of Jewish law on court decisions and legislation, and appear to subordinate the democratic character of the state to that of its Jewish character.

What are the political motivations involved?

  • Two centrist parties in the coalition, Yesh Atid led by Yair Lapid, and Hatnua led by Tzipi Livni, have said they will not support hard line versions of the bill which would harm Israeli democracy, even if it means the collapse of the government. Though Yesh Atid would likely accept a more moderate version based on the principles outline by the Prime Minister, it is not clear if Tzipi Livni’s faction will. Critics have argued that the legislation is completely unnecessary and ill-timed, given the current high level of tensions between Jews and Arabs after a series of terror attacks.
  • Prime Minister Netanyahu argues that it is necessary to establish in law that Israel’s Jewish and democratic characters should be of equal weight, and also to respond to Palestinians and others who deny Jewish national rights.
  • The debate has to be seen in the context of domestic political rivalry, with a fracturing coalition and growing expectation of new elections. The row provides an opportunity for parties and parliamentarians on the right to prove their nationalist credentials, and to paint their centrist rivals as weak or disloyal. This feeds on the current heightened levels of tension in the country after a series of terror attacks.
  • It is just one example of legislation which is dividing the current coalition, with budgetary and economic measures being proposed by Yair Lapid being opposed by other parties in the government.

What is likely to happen next?

  • A first reading has been delayed until 3 December whilst the parties seek a compromise. Since the Prime Minister’s version is acceptable to Yesh Atid, it seems that the way to a solution is open, but given the political acrimony within the government, it is by no means certain.

In what sense is Israel ‘Jewish’ today?

  • Most Israeli Jews want to preserve Israel’s character as it is today, as both democratic and Jewish. Israel today is ‘Jewish’ in the sense that it has a 75 per cent Jewish majority, allows that majority to express the universal legal right to national self-determination, and is open to Jews who wish to immigrate. This is no different to most other states which express the right of the ethnic majority to self-determination, whilst still protecting the rights of minorities.
  • Reference to a ‘Jewish state’ does not mean a state based on religious precepts, or a state which discriminates against non-Jews.
  • All Israelis today – both the 75 per cent Jewish majority and non-Jewish minorities – enjoy equal rights before the law and freedom of religion. Non-Jewish minorities enjoy collective rights in education, language and religion.
  • Existing basic laws in Israel defines Israel as “a Jewish and democratic state” and enshrine in law that: “Fundamental human rights in Israel are founded upon recognition of the value of the human being, the sanctity of human life, and the principle that all persons are free … in the spirit of the principles set forth in the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel.” Discrimination based on religious or ethnic identity is illegal.
  • In Israel’s May 1948 Declaration of Independence, Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion declared the establishment of: “A Jewish State in Eretz-Israel [the Land of Israel], to be known as the State of Israel,” which would ensure “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex,” and “will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”

What is the historical background?

  • The State of Israel was admitted to the United Nations in May 1949, after declaring its independence as a Jewish state when the British Mandate ended in May 1948.
  • Israel’s Declaration of Independence as a Jewish state came after the United Nations General Assembly approved in November 1947, with a two-thirds majority, a plan to partition British Mandatory Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. The proposal was accepted by the Jews but rejected by the Arabs, who then launched the 1947-48 Arab-Israeli War.
  • The British government committed to support “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” in the 1917 Balfour Declaration. This goal received international legal sanction under the League of Nations Mandate granted to Britain in 1922, which gave recognition to, “the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.”
  • The founder of modern political Zionism Theodore Herzl launched the modern political movement of Zionism with a pamphlet published in 1896 entitled Der Judenstaat (The State of the Jews). Following many centuries of anti-Semitic persecution in Europe, he and most other Zionist leaders envisaged a secular, democratic, Jewish majority state in which non-Jews would live as full and equal citizens.

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In the Jewish nation-state kerfuffle, much ado over very little substance

The controversial proposal to pass a law defining Israel’s Jewish status threatens to fell the third Netanyahu government, —and for what?



Times of Israel, November 24, 2014

The third government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been marked by infighting and distrust almost from the start. The drafting of ultra-Orthodox youth to national service, reforms to the state rabbinate, the controversial “0% VAT” tax cut for some first-time homebuyers, a constitutional amendment demanding a national referendum before Israel can withdraw from sovereign territory – all these were the subject of bitter public spats between members of the ruling coalition.

But none produced the sheer spectacle of angry recriminations witnessed at Sunday’s cabinet meeting over the efforts to draft a constitutional Basic Law formally defining Israel as the Jewish nation-state.

At a cabinet debate over a three-page statement of principles that would guide the drafting of the new law, Finance Minister Yair Lapid charged that the proposal was a “bad” one, and that Likud founder Menachem Begin and the party’s ideological forebear Ze’ev Jabotinsky would have opposed it. Justice Minister Tzipi Livni rallied to defend democracy, she said, by opposing the measure.

In the end, the cabinet decision passed 14-6 in a clean divide between the three right-wing parties supporting the measure and the two centrist parties, Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Livni’s Hatnua, opposed.

The accusations by Lapid and Livni, the fact that according to leaked reports from the closed cabinet meeting voices had been raised and emotions were raw, all suggest that the coalition’s breaking point may be close.

In a sense, it would be fitting were the coalition to collapse over Sunday’s cabinet debate, if only because it so neatly typifies the conduct of this government so far.

For one thing, Lapid and Livni’s claims that they were voting against “a bill that places the Jewish character of the state above the democratic,” to quote Lapid, was untrue. It is true that Sunday’s cabinet decision contained two versions of the nation-state bill – one from the previous Knesset proposed anew by MK Ze’ev Elkin (Likud), and another by MKs Yariv Levin (Likud) and Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home). But the government did not vote on those bills, which in some of their articles actually contradict each other. Rather, the cabinet passed a decision that contained both bills, but which noted explicitly that the vote was conditioned on the bills being “subsumed by a government bill that will be proposed by the prime minister, which will be drafted on the basis of the principles contained in the appendix to this decision, and will be adapted to [the government bill].“

The Elkin and Levin-Shaked versions of the bill identify Israel only as “the national home of the Jewish people.” Democracy does not constitute part of the state’s identity in the right-wing proposals, but merely, in the words used by both bills, “its form of government.”

But the cabinet decision on which the ministers voted did not “pass” the right-wing bills, as much of the Israeli media reported. It actually voted to subsume them, and thus de facto to replace them, with a larger government bill based on the prime minister’s 14 principles. And in principle 2-D of the decision, one reads, “The State of Israel is a democratic state, established on the foundations of liberty, justice and peace envisioned by the prophets of Israel, and which fulfills the personal rights of all its citizens, under law.”

There is no hedging, no distinction between what Israel simply “is” and what its “form of government” might be.

There is, in other words, no reason to vote against the cabinet decision if, as Lapid explained Sunday, “we are for the nation-state law, but not this law. The law that was proposed today places the Jewish state before the democratic one. It distinguishes between the two [principles].”

A centrist pedigree

Sometime in late 2007, eight men sat on a porch in the small village of Reut near Modi’in. Over a modest fare of coffee, crackers and cheese, the group discussed a new threat to Jewish national independence in the land of Israel.

In 2006 and early 2007, Israeli Arab civic groups produced three documents about the nature and identity of Israel: The Arab Higher Coordinating Committee’s “Future Vision for the Arab Palestinians of Israel,” Adalah’s “Democratic Constitution,” and the Mossawa Center’s Haifa Declaration.

The documents marked the first serious foray of Israeli Arab civil society into the question of Israel’s identity, and their shared conclusion was unequivocal: the Israeli state’s identification with Jewish nationhood must end. As the country’s “indigenous minority,” Israel’s Arabs deserved political autonomy, special protections, and a dismantling of the prevailing ethnic majority’s national self-determination.

Which brings us to the group gathered on that porch in the winter of 2007. The porch itself belonged to former IDF chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon, who had left the army’s highest post two years earlier while in a public feud with then-defense minister Shaul Mofaz over the government’s plans to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip.

The remaining guests make up a telling cross-section of Israeli politics: Dubi Helman, the left-wing secular socialist ex-Mapai party activist and former kibbutz movement leader; Yisrael Harel, journalist and former founding chairman of the umbrella council of Jewish West Bank settlements; Professor Avi Diskin, a political scientist and supporter of Palestinian statehood from before the idea became popular in the 1990s; Professor Asher Cohen, noted scholar of religious Zionism; Yoel Golovensky, Harvard-trained Israeli-American lawyer and right-wing activist; and Adi Arbel, a young right-wing activist who served as coordinator of the gatherings.

Meeting some half a dozen times over the next six months, the “thinking group” discussed ways of responding to the Arab Israeli challenge.

“In the disengagement [from Gaza in 2005], the State of Israel announced that it was giving up on the justice of its settlement [of the West Bank and Gaza],” says Adi Arbel, trying to explain the thinking of the group.

In that withdrawal, Israel effectively “admitted that it was only a matter of time before the Palestinian nation-state was established, so it was time [for the Arab Israeli activists] to open up the new front, the campaign over the status of the state of Israel itself.”

Whether they supported Palestinian national self-determination (Diskin and Helman) or opposed it (Ya’alon and Harel) all the members of the group drew the line at the attempt to deny a parallel Jewish right to national independence for the Jews.

The group’s discussions turned into an initiative of the Institute for Zionist Strategies, a small Jerusalem think tank led by Harel and Golovensky, which produced the first version of the nation-state bill. In 2009, Arbel and Helman published a paper on the subject, and in the 2009 elections, the call for a nation-state bill actually made it into the platform of the centrist Kadima party under its then-leader Tzipi Livni.

In the summer of 2009, IZS staff working on the bill met with former Shin Bet head and then-Kadima MK Avi Dichter, who adopted the initiative eagerly. Dichter is known as a political centrist, a critic of the far-right and an advocate of separation from the Palestinians.

In fact, in explaining his own support for the bill, he described it as an end-run around Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people – a demand Netanyahu saw as a litmus test for the Palestinian willingness to end the conflict. By defining Israel as the Jewish nation-state in its own constitution, simple recognition of Israel, which moderate Palestinian leaders have been willing to do, would necessarily constitute acceptance of the state’s constitutional identification with the Jewish nation, Dichter reasoned. It would remove a small but significant obstacle on the road to peace.

From the summer of 2009 through 2010, Dichter worked diligently with IZS scholars to craft a final version of the bill, and presented it in the Knesset in the summer of 2011. Dichter had garnered 39 signatures for the bill, a remarkable feat in a Knesset that saw 38 MKs serving as ministers or deputy ministers – and thus unable to sign on to legislation – and over two-dozen lawmakers in ultra-Orthodox or Arab parties, each opposed to the basic law on fundamental ideological grounds. Fully 20 of Kadima’s 28 MKs were signed on.

The Jewish nation-state bill began squarely in the political center as a Zionist response to Arab civil society’s efforts to challenge the very principles the bill tries to cement in law.

Fast forward to 2014, and to the famously clever machinations of coalition chairman Ze’ev Elkin. Elkin began his political career in Kadima under Ariel Sharon, but left the party after the more dovish Tzipi Livni took over as chair. As coalition chairman in the previous government, Elkin earned the respect of fellow lawmakers as a wily and extremely competent political negotiator, a steady hand at the helm of the last coalition who famously never lost a vote in the Knesset plenum in four years. (To be fair, Elkin lost one vote in the 18th Knesset. He was absent from the plenum at the time as his wife was in hospital giving birth. But, of course, the only thing more impressive than a coalition chairman winning every vote is having the government lose the one vote in four years in which he was absent.)

And so it was Elkin, rather than Netanyahu, Livni, Levin or Shaked, who brought back to the Knesset the verbatim copy of Dichter’s original bill. Elkin’s “right-wing” assault on liberty, as Livni now calls it, once had the support of over two-thirds of her own party, not to mention Labor MKs such as Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Einat Wilf. This strange disparity in responses between the last Knesset and the current one is not an argument in favor of the bill, but it speaks volumes about the seriousness of the criticism.

A lawyerly rebuke

Perhaps the most telling rhetoric from Sunday’s contumelious exchange in the cabinet meeting, however, was offered by Attorney General Yehudah Weinstein, who serves as the government’s top legal advisor.

“The bills that are the subject of this decision,” Weinstein wrote to the ministers in a legal opinion attached to Sunday’s cabinet decision, “deal with an issue that is one of the most foundational principles of the constitutional regime of the state of Israel, and of Israeli society – the defining of the character of the state as the nation-state of the Jewish nation. It is hard to overstate the importance and sensitivity of a Basic Law that will determine the collective rights of the members of Israeli society, and will delineate the ramifications of Israel’s identity as the Jewish state. Beyond the obvious ramifications in the legal realm, a Basic Law such as this one will affect the lives of every citizen and resident in the state, and the shape of society as a whole, in addition to Israel’s foreign relations.”

He continues: “The legislation of every Basic Law, as a stage in the development of the Israeli constitution for generations to come, requires systematic, intensive and intelligent clarification – and how much more so when we deal with the Basic Law that is before us, which seeks to decide questions with which Israeli society has grappled from the moment of the founding of the state, and which have been the cause of disagreements and tensions for generations…. In such issues, one should not discount even a single letter. Before the government bill is drafted, as is proposed [in the cabinet decision], it is very problematic for the government to support private bills…about such a subject as this.”

It may be worth stopping there, because Weinstein goes on for some time. If any reader missed the glaring insult in Weinstein’s words, the fault lies with this writer’s translation. The initiative to pass the Basic Law as a private member bill – as Elkin, Levin and Shaked tried to do – was amateurish and unbecoming of a major constitutional change, Weinstein was explaining.

But Weinstein failed to note that the 1992 Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty was proposed as a private member bill after a divided coalition could not pass a larger Basic Law: Human Rights over the opposition of religious parties who worried that constitutional guarantees of some liberal rights such as equality could undermine state religious institutions.

The Israeli state is 66 years old, but sports only a piecemeal constitution whose most important provisions, such as the rights to bodily safety, privacy and economic freedom, were passed because individual lawmakers identified opportune political moments in which to push through private bills.

Israel’s incomplete constitution, made up of the country’s 11 Basic Laws, still does not explicitly guarantee gender equality or free expression, and does not clearly and unequivocally define the state’s identity, either in respect to the Jewish people or the country’s ethnic and religious minorities.

And so Sunday’s spectacle raises a question more disconcerting and dangerous for Israel’s future than any imagined failing in the prime minister’s proposed nation-state bill.

Ministers shouting untruths about a constitution-altering bill at the cabinet table and then proudly leaking news of their bickering; an attorney general lecturing ministers against approving private member bills on constitutional matters, without mentioning that that was precisely how previous constitutional revolutions, ones with which he more readily agreed, had been passed; centrist legislation that is transmuted through sheer political posturing and media ignorance into a far-right proposal – it’s enough to make even the most optimistic Israeli wonder whether the country’s political class and public debate are up to the still unfinished task of building the very nation-state so many political leaders are so loudly trying to rescue.

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