A week before Israel’s Knesset approved the Nationality Law, which defines Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used his speech at the State Memorial Ceremony for Ze’ev Jabotinsky on July 12 to argue in favor of the controversial legislation. Jabotinsky was the founder of Revisionist Zionism and is often regarded as the ideological forefather of today's ruling Likud Party. The law was needed, the prime minister argued, to "ensure the Jewish character of our state for generations." Netanyahu did not elaborate. But against the backdrop of the recent pro-annexation surge in the prime minister’s Likud Party, it is conceivable that the new legislation is laying the constitutional groundwork for continued Jewish hegemony if and when Israel moves to formally annex the West Bank to its territory — and millions of Palestinians to its census.
Netanyahu did not specify in his remarks what was endangering Israel’s Jewish character or how the statute would ward off that danger. But the first sentence of the Nationality Law offers a clue. The text states, "The Land of Israel, in which the State of Israel arose, is the historic homeland of the Jewish people.’’ With the Knesset establishing this as the statute’s initial Basic Principle, the law implies a latent Jewish territorial claim that goes beyond Israel’s internationally recognized boundaries, to the Biblical "Land of Israel." This term, increasingly used by the Israeli right, encompasses the geographical area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, hence includes the occupied West Bank. An annexation of those occupied territories and their residents would indeed pose a challenge to Israel’s dominant Jewish identity.
According to the most recent data of Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, 74.5% of Israel’s population is Jewish and 20.9% Arab. “Non-Arab Christians” and others account for the rest. The bureau’s count includes the Palestinians of East Jerusalem, which was annexed by Israel in 1967, as well as Israeli settlers in the West Bank, but it leaves out the Palestinian residents of the unannexed West Bank areas. An analysis by the bureau last year projected that the current demographic balance is not expected to change at least through 2065.
The demographic picture would undergo a drastic shift, however, were Israel to annex the West Bank. Hebrew University demographer professor Sergio DellaPergola told Al-Monitor that incorporating the remainder of the West Bank into Israel — i.e., beyond East Jerusalem — would add an estimated 2.55 million Palestinians to Israel’s population, resulting in a non-Jewish minority of approximately 40%.
The new Basic Law does not explicitly mention an annexation of “the Land of Israel,” and when, in its third Basic Principle, it grants the Jewish people an exclusive right to national self-determination, it does so within the context of the “State of Israel” alone.
Yet in right-wing Israel, the line between “Land” and “State” is frequently blurred and easily crossed. The 2011 Law Preventing Harm to the State of Israel by Means of Boycott, for example, legislated under a previous Netanyahu government, established a definition of the “State of Israel” that includes any “area under [Israel’s] control” — in other words, that encompasses the occupied territories beyond Israel’s recognized borders. In a similar vein, when Tourism Minister Yariv Levin (Likud) addressed the Knesset plenum following the vote to approve the Nationality Law, he taunted Jewish members of Knesset who had opposed the bill by posing a rhetorical question: “Do you dispute the exercise of the Jewish people’s right over the Land of Israel? Isn’t it our nation-state?” And a proposed amendment submitted by the liberal Meretz Party that would have prevented the new law from being applied to territories beyond Israel’s current sovereign boundaries was roundly and tellingly defeated, 63 to 31.
The coalition’s rejection of the Meretz proposal came as no surprise amid the myriad initiatives gaining traction on the Israeli right to have Israel annex the West Bank. On the last day of 2017, for example, the Likud’s Central Committee unanimously approved a resolution that marked “50 years since the liberation of the Judea and Samaria regions [i.e., the West Bank]” and called on the party’s elected officials to “apply Israeli sovereignty” over that area.
The resolution, though not legally binding over the Likud’s Knesset members and Cabinet members, was consistent with the party’s constitution, which asserts the Jewish people’s “unchallengeable and eternal right” to the whole of the Land of Israel and lays down the goal of “applying State sovereignty to all parts” of it.
The bid for annexation is also being expressed in the parliamentary realm. In recent months, coalition members have submitted a flurry of bills that would make Israel sovereign over the West Bank or parts of it. Netanyahu, as reported by Al-Monitor’s Mazal Mualem, is sympathetic to such legislation, but feels it needs to be advanced in coordination with the Trump administration.
Some Israelis are taking notice and sounding a warning. Professor DellaPergola told Al-Monitor that “were Israel to incorporate the entire West Bank,” it would “make the concept of Israel as a Jewish state absolutely untenable.”
Ron Huldai, the Labor Party-affiliated mayor of Tel Aviv, told Israel’s Army Radio that coalition leaders had intentionally omitted any reference to democratic principles from the law’s text. “The law was legislated that way with one goal,” he said. “If you say ‘the democratic Jewish nation-state,’ it’s clear that in order to be a Jewish nation-state, there needs to be a Jewish majority. The minute you leave out ‘democratic’ … you're saying that the state belongs to the Jews, and even if they won't be a majority, they'll be able to continue ruling over another people."
Retired Supreme Court Justice Eliyahu Matza offered a prognosis that was even more explicit. Speaking to Kan, the Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation, Matza said that the Nationality Law’s distinction between Jews and non-Jews was a clear indication that the Netanyahu government was abandoning the two-state solution. The government, he argued, was “aiming for an annexation of the administered territories,” and was readying Israel to “absorb several million Arab inhabitants who won’t have rights.” This, he warned, would turn Israel into “an apartheid state par excellence.”