Early on Thursday morning, Israel’s Knesset passed a bill that is no ordinary piece of legislation. Rather than putting policy into practice, the “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People” reshapes the very constitutional foundations of the country. Known also as the Nation State Bill, the law acts as a shield to the Netanyahu coalition’s platform and the ideology of his right-wing partners.
The law emphasises the state’s Jewish character, but forgoes its democratic element. It designates Hebrew as the country’s sole official language, and downgrades Arabic to a “special status”, despite being spoken by a fifth of the country’s population (it was previously an official language). Jerusalem “complete and united” is enshrined as the state’s capital, even as protests rage over its status.
In the process, the bill relegates minority rights in the country, alienates Arabs, and makes declarations in law that are likely to further stymie the mostly-abandoned peace process with Palestine. Finally, it explicitly encourages the further development of settler populations (Article 7), stating that the state will act to support the establishment and advancement of Jewish settlement in the country. It doesn’t mention the West Bank by name, but will be interpreted as authorising settlements there implicitly.
Approved in the early hours of Thursday, the law passed with 62 votes to 55 with the support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, which includes settler-nationalist and ultra-orthodox parties. Arab members of parliament (MKs) were thrown out of the Knesset chamber after they tore up the bill in protest. Members of the Arab Joint List labelled the bill “racist” and Tamar Zandberg, leader of the left-wing Meretz party compared it to apartheid.
Netanyahu, who faces continued allegations of corruption, remains under the thumb of the ardently right-wing voices in his coalition. Earlier on Thursday, the prime minister voted in favour of a bill limiting LGBTQ surrogacy rights after pressure from his coalition partners, despite claiming he would not.
The language of the Nation State bill was amended significantly from the version circulated at its first reading. Its defenders argue that this removed much of the controversial content, but this is far from the truth. Instead, once-explicit matters became implicit. Article 7(b), for instance, previously allowed for the state to enable “separate community settlement” for a particular religious or national group. This law was designed as a one-sided mechanism to protect Jewish settlers, and it remains so despite its rewording.
The Nation State bill acknowledges in policy what is already happening in practice. The country continues to build settlements in the West Bank, separating population centres from one another, and making prospects of a two-state solution to the protracted conflict with Palestine ever more challenging.
This has long since been the policy of Netanyahu and his coalition partners. Jewish Home Party leader Naftali Bennett has on numerous occasions called for the annexation of large swathes of the West Bank, arguing that “the world will get used to it in time”. Within Israel, too, domestic authorities prevent Arabs from purchasing property in a bid to keep communities apart.
The intention here is to present negotiators and international bodies with a fait accompli, and deny Palestinians rights to land. Wrapped up in this, of course, is also the systematic denial of dignity and equality to hundreds of thousands of Arabs in Israel and Palestine along linguistic and historical lines.
These are policies that Israel promotes fiercely despite criticism. But celebrating these attitudes in law, and altering the very fabric of the state adds insult to injury. It is rare for one piece of legislation to create blanket, official authorisation for quite so much destruction.
The Nation State Law serves to quash the country’s claims of freedom, democracy and pluralism that it tries so hard to radiate elsewhere. It is a saddening reaffirmation of the Netanyahu administration’s intransigence, and the dim prospects of Palestinian liberation as long as his government remains in power.