Israel MPs to debate divisive Jewish nation law next week

Jerusalem: Israeli MPs are to return from summer recess next week to discuss mounting criticism of a new law proclaiming the country the nation state of the Jewish people, parliament said Tuesday.

President Reuven Rivlin has reportedly said he will sign the law in Arabic, in an apparent protest against the language’s loss of official status alongside Hebrew under the legislation.

Rivlin’s office did not confirm the reports in the Israeli media.

Parliament announced it will meet on August 8 at the demand of 52 out of 120 members, more than twice the number required to call a special session.

The session is for debate only and no votes will be taken, although some MPs have called for urgent changes to a law that they say legalises discrimination against the Israel’s Arab minority.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has defended the legislation, saying there are other laws on the books that guarantee equality for non-Jews and define Israel as democratic.

But Arabs have strongly criticised it, particularly those from Israel’s 130,000-strong Druze community, who, unlike other Arabs who may volunteer, are subject to compulsory service in the military or police alongside Jewish Israelis.

Arab lawmakers have branded the law “racist.”

A growing number of Jewish politicians have called for changes to address the concerns of the Druze.

Eight former police chiefs, three ex-armed forces chiefs of staff and dozens of retired senior officers have signed petitions denouncing the law.

Israeli military chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot on Tuesday called on all soldiers to leave politics outside the army.

“We are committed to preserving human dignity regardless of ethnicity, religion or gender,” he said in a statement.

“Our shared mission and camaraderie with our Druze and Bedouin brothers, among other minorities serving in the (Israeli military) will continue to guide our path.”

The legislation’s sponsor, Avi Dichter of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, ruled out any changes to the law.

“I don’t see any reason to change the basic law to take into account the Druze community,” Dichter told army radio, adding that he could support separate legislation related to the Druze.

Rivlin’s reported comments on the sidelines of an event Monday came after he openly criticised an earlier version of the law many said would have allowed for Jewish-only communities. That clause was eventually modified.

The law was passed in the middle of the night on July 19 and is part of Israel’s so-called basic laws, a de facto constitution.

It makes no mention of equality or democracy, implying the country’s Jewish character takes precedence.

It speaks of Israel as the historic homeland of the Jews and says they have a “unique” right to self-determination within its borders.

The law defines the establishment of Jewish communities as being in the national interest and makes Hebrew the sole official language.

Arabic, previously considered an official language, is granted only special status.

Arab citizens make up some 17.5 percent of Israel’s more than eight million population.

Netanyahu leads what is seen as the most right-wing government in Israel’s history.

A poll by the respected Israel Democracy Institute found that 52 percent of Jewish Israelis believe there was a need for the law compared to seven percent of Arab Israelis.

The poll included a sample of 600 people with a margin of error of 4.1 percent.

Agence France-Presse