JERUSALEM – A divided Cabinet approved on Sunday a bill to anchor in law Israel’s status as the nation-state of the Jewish people, legislation critics say could undermine its democratic foundation and the rights of its Arab minority.
Right-wing supporters of the initiative, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have pledged such a law, which has widened rifts within his governing coalition, would guarantee full equality for all of Israel’s citizens.
A final wording of the bill is still pending, and Israel’s attorney general has cautioned against giving Jewish values, based on religion and history, prominence over democratic principles in lawmaking and judicial rulings.
The measure pitted centrist ministers against right-wing and ultranationalist Cabinet members, who outvoted them 15 to 7 to approve three versions of the bill likely to be merged later.
Officials said the legislation would be brought to parliament on Wednesday for preliminary ratification.
Palestinians had rejected Netanyahu’s demand they recognize Israel as a Jewish state, voicing concern that could deny Palestinian refugees a claimed right of return to homes they left or were forced to flee during Israeli-Arab wars.
Legislators from the country’s Arab minority have described the bill as racist, noting that at least one version of the proposed law would leave Hebrew as Israel’s only official language — and demote Arabic to “special status.”
Netanyahu has submitted his own wording for the law, listing 14 principles that include declaring that “the State of Israel is democratic and founded on the principles of liberty, justice and peace in accordance with the visions of the Prophets of Israel.”
The Israeli leader’s draft, which was released to the media, pledges to “uphold the individual rights of all of Israel’s citizens,” but also says that only the Jewish people have a right of self-determination in the State of Israel.
The phrasing appears to rule out any binational state with the Palestinians, but makes no reference to the independent country they seek in the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem in a stalled, U.S.-brokered peace process.
“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,” Netanyahu said in public remarks at the Cabinet meeting.