x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Israel rejects proposal

Israeli government rejects controversial law proposal that would have forced the country's Palestinian minority to formally recognise the state's Jewish character.

TEL AVIV // The Israeli government rejected yesterday a controversial law proposal that would have forced the country's Palestinian minority to formally recognise the state's Jewish character, dealing a setback to the increasingly powerful far-right party that sponsored the bill. By a vote of 8-3, the 11-member governmental panel on legislation scrapped the measure that would have allowed the interior minister to confiscate the citizenship of any Israeli who refused to swear loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state. Furthermore, it would have also permitted the annulment of citizenship for those who declined to serve in the army, mandatory for most Israelis, or perform a form of civil service.

The bill was widely viewed as targeting Israel's Palestinian citizens, who make up one-fifth of the 7.2 million-strong population, view Israel's Jewish character as discriminatory against them and seldom carry out military or civil service. The cabinet's rebuff was a blow to Yisrael Beiteinu, the ultranationalist party of the foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman. It had hoped its election gains made the bill's chances of approval by the predominantly right-wing government greater than in 2007, when a similar proposal presented by the party failed to pass.

"There is no doubt that this is a slap in the face for Yisrael Beiteinu," said Ahmad Tibi, a veteran Israeli Arab politician. Still, he warned of "a flood of similarly draconian and hallucinatory" bills that are being promoted by Mr Lieberman's party. Had the proposal been approved by the government, it would have still needed to pass three parliamentary votes and a committee review before taking effect. Although a governmental nod would have greatly facilitated the bill's passing through parliament, Yisrael Beiteinu could still reintroduce it as a private measure.

The party, whose ministers were the only ones in the committee to vote in favour of the bill, yesterday lambasted the other ministers for "voting against the strengthening of the state of Israel as a Jewish, Zionist and democratic state and allowing the insulting of its symbols and values to continue". The "Citizenship Law" has drawn much media attention in Israel and abroad in recent days because its discussion by the cabinet followed the advancement of two similarly anti-Arab bills.

The more prominent of the two was the so-called "Nakba Law", which stirred controversy after winning the government's approval last week. The legislation, also submitted by Yisrael Beiteinu, called for punishing anyone caught commemorating the 1948 establishment of Israel as "the Nakba", or "the catastrophe", with up to three years in prison. Palestinians in Israel, like those in the Gaza Strip, West Bank and abroad, hold annual mourning ceremonies in memory of the more than 700,000 Palestinians who lost their homes in the war that led to Israel's creation.

Yesterday, the cabinet watered down the proposal. Instead of banning Nakba events altogether, it would forbid any state funds from being used for such ceremonies. According to the Israeli press, ministers from the Labor, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu parties support the changes. A third law draft, brought by a small ultranationalist party and calling for imprisoning anyone "publicising or inciting" against Israel's Jewish character for one year, passed a preliminary parliamentary reading last week. vbekker@thenational.ae