What does Israel’s new “Basic Law”
mean for Israeli democracy?

A new bill approved by the Israeli Knesset could severely compromise the rights of Palestinians living in Israel. Many feel that it could also threaten the viability of a future Palestinian state, and could do irreparable harm to Israeli democracy.

The first version of the Israeli constitutional bill was submitted in 2011 by Avi Dichter of Israel’s Kadima party. Since that time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has become a fierce proponent of making it law.

Dubbed “Israel as a Nation-State of the Jewish People,” this so-called “Basic Law” purports to “defend the character of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.” On the surface, that would appear reasonable and even self-evident. However, many see severe conflicts between Jewish rights as laid out in the bill, and Israel as a fully functional democracy. Those conflicts may even be irreconcilable.

At the root of concerns many have with the law are the following provisions:

  • The law specifies that only Jewish citizens in Israel are entitled to the right to self-determination.
  • Hebrew is the official language of the country, promoted over Arabic. It has already been reported that some signs in Israel that had previously been in both Hebrew and Arabic have now been changed to just Hebrew. Similarly, all state symbols are Jewish ones, and the Hebrew calendar is the official state calendar.
  • Jerusalem is the capital of the state of Israel.
  • Perhaps most importantly, Jewish civil law is given precedence over the power of the judiciary to rule on any abuse of civil rights.

There appear to be good reasons for concerns. Here are a few:

  • In his speech on November 26, 2014, Netanyahu declared Israel to be “The nation-state of the Jewish people and the Jewish people alone.” When challenged by other members of the Knesset, Netanyahu agreed that there would be respect for equal rights for non-Jews. That acknowledgement, however, was not part of his version of the bill.
  • Netanyahu has also been widely criticized for his 2015 promise that he would never allow the establishment of a Palestinian state.
  • Over the last several years, Israel has been taking steps to revoke the citizenship of thousands of Palestinian residents of Jerusalem.
  • The new Basic Law declares all of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, with only the Jewish people having the right to self-determination. And last December, U.S. President Donald Trump attempted to preempt a negotiated final status of Jerusalem by declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel, which heightened international attention and outrage over the issue.  
  • Netanyahu has required that Mahmoud Abbas recognize Israel as a Jewish state before resumption of any negotiations. By eliminating the “democratic” part of the Israeli equation, Netanyahu creates an untenable position for the Palestinian president.

A “Basic Law” in Israel is constitutional, and becomes just as difficult to repeal as is an amendment in the U.S. Constitution.  Palestinians and human rights advocates are worried that if this bill becomes law, it would be difficult to reverse policies that could well harm Palestinian citizens.

The bill’s language, though not overtly anti-Palestinian, emphasizes rights based on a Jewish heritage. Perhaps more importantly, the vague language allows the bill to be enforced based on interpretation of that language, and it eviscerates the power of the courts to act as a check on abuse against civil rights. This is creating fears about the damage it will do to Israeli democracy. It is also causing much discomfort for those who  believe that it could harm the rights of the 20% of Israeli citizens who are also Palestinians.

For decades, Palestinians and Israelis have argued over the official borders of both Israel and of a future Palestinian state. By allowing the regular construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israeli has gradually been encroaching on  land that Palestinians claim for their state. The UN has asked Israel to stop expanding its settlements until negotiations are completed and formal borders have been drawn, but construction has not stopped.

The new bill states that “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” This could create an opportunity for legal expansion of Jewish settlements, despite international criticism.

The Ministerial Committee of Knesset, many of whom share Netanyahu’s ambitions, approved the bill earlier this week. This is causing deep concern for many Palestinians and human rights advocates, who wonder what kind of future this Basic Law might create for Israel.

Many people are saying that it is impossible for Israel to remain a democratic nation if it adopts and executes the policies in this bill. In fact, some already see Israel as an “ethnocracy,” though with some democratic features.

No matter what you call it, Israel is not currently functioning as a full democracy. Although Israel still elects its leaders through vote by the people, as democracy dictates, it does not recognize the equal rights of all citizens.

This has consequences for democracy. Israel is now considered a “flawed democracy,” having fallen to #30 on the Economist’s Democracy Index, behind Cabo Verde and Botswana principally because of Israel’s issues with civil liberties. The country’s newest Basic Law threatens a further drop.

Annika Hom and Camilla Warrender  (Boston, Massachusetts)

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