Nationality law and the Israeli election
26 Mar 2019|

Does Israel belong to all of its citizens or to the Jewish people alone? As the Israeli election scheduled for 9 April draws near, this question has once again attracted a lot of attention. Israel has always struggled with the contradictory pulls of presenting itself as a modern nation-state that belongs to all Israeli citizens regardless of race or religion and of cleaving to the very powerful Zionist idea of a homeland of the Jewish people regardless of where they live.

This dilemma has been exacerbated by the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories since 1967. According to Israeli projections, soon there will be as many Arabs as Jews in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. As the prospect of a two-state solution has receded, the spectre of a bi-national state with equal rights for all citizens has begun to haunt the Zionist right. The nationality law passed by the Knesset in July 2018 by a vote of 62 to 55, which declares Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people, was a pre-emptive measure to rule out that option.

The legislation may be consistent with the original Zionist idea, but it has grave implications for Israel’s claim to be a state of all its people, including the Palestinian Arabs who constitute one-fifth of its population. It’s claimed that more than 65 laws have been passed since Israel’s establishment that restrict the rights of Palestinian citizens in all fields, including housing and employment. However, this is the most blatant attempt to legally delineate the Palestinian inhabitants of Israel as second-class citizens.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the passage of the law as ‘a pivotal moment in the annals of Zionism and the State of Israel. We enshrined in law the basic principle of our existence.’ In contrast, Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint Arab List group of parties at the time, declared that by passing the bill the Knesset had approved a ‘law of Jewish supremacy and told us that we will always be second-class citizens’.

The debate surrounding the law became more heated when Israel’s elections committee, made up of members of the outgoing parliament, voted 17 to 10 to bar the joint Arab party Raam-Balad from participating in the election, a decision later overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court. Signalling his support to the election committee’s decision, Netanyahu tweeted that ‘Those who support terrorism will not be in the Israeli Knesset!’

Recently, Netanyahu re-emphasised his commitment to the nationality law in response to a comment posted on social media by Israeli TV personality Rotem Sela. In a strongly worded statement, Sela declared: ‘When the hell will someone in this government broadcast to the public that Israel is a country for all its citizens. And every person was born equal. Arabs, too, God help us, are human beings.’

Netayahu’s response on Instagram read, ‘Israel is not a state of all its citizens. According to the Nation-State Law that we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish People—and them alone.’ In the same posting, he wrote that the upcoming elections are crucial for Israel’s future. Playing to his ultra-nationalist base, he argued that, ‘It’s either a strong right-wing government led by me, or Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz’s left-wing government with the support of the Arab parties. Lapid and Gantz have no other way to form a government, and a government like this will undermine the security of the state and citizens.’ The statement clearly implied that the loyalty of Israel’s Arab citizens is suspect and therefore they should never be accepted as part of a coalition governing a Jewish nation-state.

In a remarkable instance of the head of state refuting the head of government, Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin, while not mentioning the prime minister’s remarks directly, criticised what he said were recent ‘entirely unacceptable remarks about the Arab citizens of Israel … There are no first-class citizens, and there are no second-class voters. We are all equal in the voting booth.’

Netanyahu seems to be taking a calculated risk by escalating his anti-Arab rhetoric. The strategy may backfire, as it could energise Arabs to vote in larger numbers and tilt the balance against the Likud-led coalition, thus bringing the opposition to power possibly with the help of Arab parties turning Netanyahu’s warnings into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Considering the narrow margin by which the Knesset passed the nationality law, the election could act as a referendum on the character of the Israeli state. The Israeli electorate will be passing judgement not only on Netanyahu’s fitness to govern the country in light of the corruption charges levelled against him, but more importantly on the issue of whether Israel is a state of all its citizens or that of the Jewish people alone.