The passage by the Israeli Knesset July 19 of the Jewish nationality law has produced different and even contradictory reactions by Palestinians and Israelis.
The law — passed by a small majority of 62-55, with two abstaining — follows the demand by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. During his 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech, Netanyahu set two conditions for accepting the two-state solution: that Palestine be a demilitarized state and that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The second condition was totally rejected by Palestinian leaders who argued that it is not the place of Palestinians to decide Israel’s nationality, and that such a recognition by Palestinians is tantamount to giving up the Palestinians’ right of return and that it badly infringes on the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel who are not Jewish.
The request by Israel to become a permanent member of the UN was conditional on Israel accepting the partition plan of 1947 and the right of return of Palestinian refugees as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.
It is true that UN Resolution 181 — or what is known as the 1947 partition plan — divided historic Palestine into a “Jewish” and an “Arab” state. But while at the time Israelis celebrated the passage of that plan on the ground, Israeli troops in 1948 occupied much more than the lands allotted in the partition plan, specifically in Jerusalem. The partition plan called for Jerusalem to be outside these two states in what is referred to as corpus separatum. The new Israeli nationality law violates that by declaring Jerusalem a unified Israeli city.
Since its creation in 1948, Israel, which has no constitution, has considered the May 15 declaration of independence as its reference point. That declaration clearly talks about equality in rights between Jews and Arabs. Since 1948, Israeli political leaders, laws and policies have been wavering between the two directions of whether it can be both Jewish and democratic or if it has to make a choice. It appears with this passage of the Jewish nationality law, it has opted for the latter.
The decision has angered the 1.8 million Palestinian citizens of Israel who represent about 20% of the total population. Ayman Odeh, the head of the 13-person parliamentary Joint (Arab) List, told thousands of protesters in Tel Aviv July 14, “The nation-state bill won’t make us disappear, but it will massively harm democracy.”
Aida Touma-Suleiman, the only Palestinian to chair an Israeli parliamentary committee, sharply attacked the law in parliament and at the end of her speech raised a sign calling Israel an apartheid state.
PLO leaders have focused on the word “apartheid” because of its inclusion in the International Criminal Court as a crime against humanity. The state of Palestine has joined the ICC as a full member, which allows it to take legal action against countries violating international norms.
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator and secretary of the PLO’s Executive Committee, issued a statement July 19 focusing on apartheid. “The ‘Jewish nation-state’ [law] officially legalizes apartheid and legally defines Israel as an apartheid system,” Erekat said.
PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi strongly denounced the Knesset’s adoption of the bill. The 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,” she said in a statement.
Nasser Laham, the editor of the widely read Maan News Agency, took a more sarcastic position in an article titled “Imagine if English is not an official language of Britain.” He said that modern day Hebrew — which is a language that cost Israel billions to prop up — will not last for long in comparison to the Arabic language.
The new law demoted Arabic from being an official language along with Hebrew, to a secondary language.
Hanna Issa, the head of the Islamic Christian Committee for Jerusalem and the Holy Sites, told Al-Monitor that by declaring Israel a Jewish state with a democratic regime, means that the Jewishness of Israel gets precedence on its democracy.
But while the most affected population spoke out angrily, many in Israel also expressed anger and frustration.
Gershon Baskin, an Israeli political scientist, was quoted as describing the passing of the law as “the darkest day” of Israel’s already challenged democracy. “The Palestinian citizens of Israel, according to the Netanyahu regime, represent a barely tolerated minority,” he told Arab News.
Brian Reeves, the spokesman for Peace Now, an organization that promotes peace through a two-state solution, had a similar description. Reeves told Al-Monitor that the passage of the nation-state law has cast a dark shadow over Israel. “In one fell swoop, the bill officially replaced our country's liberal democracy with an ethnic one, codifying the primacy and exclusive nation self-determination of Jews over the 20% Palestinian-Arab minority.”
Reeves noted that Israel’s founders “adamantly defended the notion that all people in the state must be treated equal and enshrined the concepts of democracy and equality in the Declaration of Independence.”
Sari Bashi, an Israeli researcher with Human Rights Watch, agreed with Issa, saying that the new law distances Israel from the democratic society to which so many of its citizens aspire and brings it closer to becoming an ethno-state that disregards the rights of the millions of Palestinians living inside Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
“In addition to exacerbating discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel in planning, housing and infrastructure, the law sends a signal to government institutions and members of the public that Israel’s Arab minority is to be tolerated but not treated equally,” Bashi told Al-Monitor.
Bashi hopes that “Israeli courts would use their rulings to minimize the damage to minority rights, but the court system, too, is under attack by the current Israeli government. Israeli judges have yet to display the courage and commitment needed to push back against oppressive government measures.”
The choice that the right-wing Israeli Knesset has made removes a major problem facing Palestinians in their attempts to gain international support. As long as the world considered Israel the only democracy in the Middle East, it was very difficult to push countries to issue sanctions against it. But now that the democratic facade has been removed by the Israelis themselves, the Palestinian efforts to censure Israel might become much easier. That, more than the content of the bill, was the reason many Israelis, including members of the Knesset, didn’t want this bill to pass.