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Israel passes controversial 'nation-state' bill

Israel passed into law a highly controversial bill that serves to define the nature of the state of Israel, with critics slamming it as the "nail in the coffin" of Israeli democracy. CNN's Oren Liebermann reports.

Posted: Jul 19, 2018 5:42 PM
Updated: Jul 19, 2018 6:02 PM

Early Thursday morning after what seemed like an all-night shouting match in Israel's Knesset, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strolled out of the parliamentary chamber, thrilled at the passage of the nation-state bill he had championed.

Ahmad Tibi, a member of Knesset from the Joint Arab List party, yelled at the Israeli leader, "You passed a racist law, an apartheid law! Why are you so afraid of Arabic?" Tibi and virtually every other member of the opposition -- Israeli and Arab -- had lambasted the nation-state bill as, at best, unnecessary and, at worst, blatantly discriminatory.

The bill stripped Arabic of its status as an official language, relegating it to a language with "special status," and failed to mention the values of equality, democracy or minority rights. Instead, it focused almost exclusively on Israel's character as a home for the Jewish people.

According to Tibi, Netanyahu fired back: "How dare you talk that way about the only democracy in the Middle East!?"

"Democracy only for Jews," Tibi snapped.

The new law, passed 62-55 with two abstentions, has little practical effect in terms of daily living.

Much of the law deals with the status of Israel's symbols -- it codifies the national anthem, describes the Israeli flag and sets the calendar as the Jewish calendar. All of the country's citizens, Israelis and Arabs alike, knew all of this in advance.

Even Arabic, though downgraded to a language with "special status," will not be removed from street signs or government forms, according to Amir Fuchs, head of the Defending Democratic Values Program at the Israel Democracy Institute.

"The new law threatens to drive a wedge between Israel and the diaspora and fuel the campaign to delegitimize Israel," warned Fuchs. "It will fall to future leaders to rectify the damage and return Israel to the Zionist vision that for 70 years has guided Israel's vitality, dynamism, and international reputation."

Instead, the nation-state law serves as a rallying cry for each side's political base. Right-wing parties with nationalist messages hailed it as a victory for Zionism. Left-wing parties with pluralist messages decried it as a defeat for democracy.

Opposition parties even mocked this possibility by suggesting an amendment that would add the language "The purpose of this Basic Law is to please the electorate on the right before elections" to the bill.

Netanyahu has hailed the law as an historic moment for Israel and for the Zionist dream.

"Today we engraved in the stone of the law: This is our nation, this is our language, this is our anthem, and this is our flag. Long live the State of Israel," Netanyahu said on social media, in a statement that points out most of the elements of the law that don't make any significant changes.

But the bill has energized Netanyahu's electoral base and received nearly unanimous support in the Prime Minister's Likud party.

Minister of Tourism Yariv Levin, who sponsored the bill, said the legislation was some of the most important ever passed by the Knesset. In a statement after the law's passage, Levin said, "This is a historic and defining day in which we add another link in the glorious chain that our Zionist forefathers began. The Nation-State law strengthens our Jewish identity and heritage and all values upon which the state was founded. The law expresses the deepest foundations of Zionism and the basis upon which the State of Israel was built."

As if any of that was in doubt or in danger of being erased in modern Israel.

Criticism of the bill came swiftly.

Palestinian Liberation Organization executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi slammed the law as a license for "apartheid."

"The 'Jewish Nation-State' law gives license to apartheid, discrimination, ethnic cleansing, and sectarianism at the expense of the Palestinian people. Such racist and prejudicial legislation is illegal by all standards of international law, democracy, humanity, justice, tolerance, and inclusion," Ashrawi said in a statement.

Israeli-Palestinian relations, already at a low, certainly aren't improving with the passage of this law.

The Association for Civil Rights (ACRI) in Israel, along with numerous other NGOs, criticized the law as well.

"The law weakens the Israeli democracy by sanctioning discrimination against minorities, most notably the Arab citizens of Israel but including others, whose language, collective memory, and cultural identity have been relegated to second-class status. The bill, that is essentially the opening part of a future constitution, does not address the issues of democracy and human rights, and blatantly undermines the balance between the State's Jewish and Democratic definitions," ACRI said in a statement.

The American Jewish Committee and the Union for Reform Judaism said the bill was "unnecessary" and could harm Israel's reputation and status abroad.

"This is a sad and unnecessary day for Israeli democracy. The damage that will be done by this new Nation-State law to the legitimacy of the Zionist vision and to the values of the state of Israel as a democratic—and Jewish—nation is enormous," said Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the Union for Reform Judaism.

The law is intentionally vague at times. It makes clear and repeated references to the State of Israel and establishes the exclusive right of the Jewish people to self-determination in the state. But it doesn't define a geographical boundary for Israel. It doesn't specify whether it's referring to Israel within the Green Line, which is the internationally accepted boundary, or whether it's also referring to the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights, considered occupied territory.

If it's the latter, this law would appear to preemptively scuttle any attempt from US President Donald's Trump administration to broker a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.

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