Israel’s controversial nationality law: What's next?

Saeed Okasha , Friday 27 Jul 2018

While narrowly passed in the Knesset, the struggle around Israel’s new nationality law is far from over, and could lead to the ouster of the extreme right in Israeli politics

Israeli Knesset
File Photo: Israeli lawmakers attend a vote on a bill at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem (Reuters)

The Israeli Knesset’s passage of a controversial nationality law has stirred up many questions, not least of which are: why now, precisely? And what repercussions will it have domestically, regionally and internationally?

Since the second Palestinian Intifada in 2000, there has been extensive and intense controversy over new conditions set by Israel for agreeing to peace and the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Above all, it now insisted on Palestinian recognition of Israel as a “Jewish state” as a precondition for entering into final status negotiations to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Many commentators regard Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech at Bar Ilan University in June 2009 as a major turning point in the historic conflict.

In that speech, he said that he was prepared to accept the two-state solution, explicitly breaking with the immutable position of the Israeli extreme right that rejects all notion of recognising the Palestinians’ right to statehood. However, he simultaneously insisted that the Palestinians had to recognise the historic right of Jews in Palestine.

He would subsequently argue that the partial agreements with the Palestinians up to that time, such as the Oslo Accords and annexes (1993-2000), only spoke of “diplomatic” recognition of two states.

While such a formality was necessary in the framework of international law, it would not be sufficient to achieve peace in the unique and special case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Here, true peace could only come when the Palestinians reached the conviction that the Jewish people had a “historic” right in Palestine and not just a political right of the sort that emerged from a settlement to a protracted conflict in which political rights were determined by the balances of military forces.

The Palestinians naturally grasped the dangerous ramifications at many levels of acceding to Netanyahu’s demands.

Firstly, it would clash with the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim culture forged around the concept of the “Zionist rape of Palestine” which has shaped the thought and attitudes of successive generations within these three spheres.

Secondly, it would mean relinquishing the internationally recognised principle of the Palestinian right to return as stipulated in UN General Assembly Resolution 194 of 1949.

No Palestinian authorities could make such a concession without the approval of more than nine million Palestinians who were born and have lived in exile since 1948.

Thirdly, it would prejudice the rights and welfare of the Palestinians of ‘48 (the Palestinians who remained in Israel after 1948 and received Israeli citizenship).

Were the Palestinian Authority (PA) to recognise Israel as a “Jewish state” this would deprive the Palestinians of ‘48 of their ethnic and national rights in Israel and pull the rug from beneath their long struggle for either a form of autonomous rule in Israel as a national minority or for an Israel that was a “state of all of its citizens”, which is to say one that did not discriminate between Jews and Palestinian Muslims and Christians. 

Fourthly, it would undermine the gains won by the widespread Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to isolate and delegitimise Israel internationally because of its racist policies against the Palestinians. Netanyahu described the BDS movement as a greater threat to Israel than all the military wars that sought to eradicate the Hebrew state.

The Nationality Law: Why Now?

Against the backdrop of the extended controversy triggered by Netanyahu’s demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition for peace, a precursor to the recently passed nationality bill was proposed by Knesset member (and former Internal Security Agency director) Avi Dichter in 2011.

His bill, in essence, was a translation into legalese of the conditions stipulated by Netanyahu in the Bar Ilan University speech. In view of its timing, it was also seen as an attempt to pre-empt President Barack Obama’s campaign to pressure Israel into making the necessary concessions to conclude a peace with the Palestinians.

In like manner, the recently passed nationality law was inspired by fears of pressures on the part of the Trump administration to impose his so-called “Deal of the Century” on both the Palestinians and Israelis.

It appears that Netanyahu is haunted by the fear of losing the support he has so far had from the man he describes as the strongest US president in history, should he turn down the “deal”.

At the same time, the Israeli prime minister fears that the passage of the deal would leave some questions open to negotiation with the Palestinians, just as President Trump had done when he recognised Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, yet added the caveat that this recognition did not signify any US stance on the borders of the city, which he said were a matter that had to be worked out between the Israelis and Palestinians in future negotiations.

Accordingly, a major reason why Netanyahu’s ruling coalition was determined to push the nationality bill through the Knesset at this time was in order to keep Palestinian demands for the right of return or for full equality in the State of Israel off the table in any future negotiations in the framework of the “Deal of the Century.”

Israeli statements and analyses have confirmed that the purpose of passing the law was to forestall situations that could arise in the event of a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Avi Dichter, who sponsored the bill, said: “We are enshrining this important bill into a law today to prevent even the slightest thought, let alone attemtp, to transform Israel to a country of all its citizens. When I listened attentively to the Joint List MKs (the parliamentary list consisting of Arab MKs), it was impossible to miss their clear words: ‘We, the Arabs will win, we are in our homeland, we were here before you and we’ll be here after you.’ This Basic Law is the clear-cut answer to those who think that.”

Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh lashed out at the nationality law as a “declaration of war” on Israel’s Arab citizens. In response to its passage, he said: “Separation, discrimination and racism are now enshrined in law. This is the law of Jewish superiority that excludes more than 20 per cent of the population. This is a law that is entirely intended to defy, divide, disparage and continue the incitement of the Netanyahu government.”

Adverse repercussions Of The Law And The Possibility Of Fighting It

The nationality law did not have an easy passage through the Knesset. It was opposed by 55 of the legislative body’s 120 members; two MKs abstained and a third was absent. It barely scraped through with a narrow majority of 62 votes.

Many in Israel fear a negative impact on Israel’s image abroad where the law is seen in many circles as a landmark in Israel’s transformation into a “fascist” state.

Others wonder how it will affect Israel’s relationship with Jews abroad, especially in the US where movements such as J-Street are gaining momentum among leftward leaning Jewish youth who support the two-state solution and oppose Israel’s racist policies.

Inside Israel, the law has also triggered a rift in Druze-Jewish relations. The Druze citizens in Israel are the most assimilated segment of Palestinian Israelis. Druze have been serving in the Israeli army since 1953.

Akram Hassoun of the Kulanu Party, and one of the three Druze members in Knesset, expressed his dismay at the law which, he said, denies the sacrifices the Druze made for the sake of the State of Israel and which anchors discrimination against the Druze and other minorities in law.

More worrisome yet, for the Netanyahu government, is that the three MKs, including two from the ruling coalition, have filed a petition against the law with the High Court of Justice.

Other Palestinian lawmakers may do likewise and, perhaps, explore ways to overturn the law through parliamentary mechanisms such as legislation to amend the state’s Basic Laws.

As for Palestinians in the PA or Hamas-controlled Gaza, their opportunities for countering the nationality law are slim.

The Trump administration believes that the Palestinians must recognise Israel as a state for the Jewish people as a precondition for any political settlement achieved through a so-called “Deal of the Century” or other negotiating tracks.

Therefore, the PA, above all, needs to invest its efforts in backing the Palestinians inside Israel in their battle against the new law. Towards this end, it will probably work to fuel anger among the Druze community in Israel and encourage others there to join the Druze MKs in their appeal to the High Court to overturn the law or, at the very least, order its modification.

Such a drive shifts a significant portion of the confrontation between the Palestinians and Israel from the international to the domestic realm inside Israel.

If it intensifies, it could jeopardise social and political cohesion and, perhaps, threaten the hold of the extreme right, led by Netanyahu, on power in Israel.

The Arab League castigates Tel Aviv

A quarterly discussion in the UN Security Council convened Tuesday to discuss the situation in the Middle East, particularly Palestinian cause, Maged Abdel-Fattah Abdel-Aziz, permanent observer for the League of Arab States, related the inability of the international organisation to forge a comprehensive settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, amid the latest Israeli military escalation in the occupied Palestinian territories.

According to Abdel-Fattah Abdel-Aziz, the occupying power, Israel, in its practices is not abiding by any of the international resolutions issued by the Security Council, General Assembly, nor even the UN Charter. “Israeli violations are all meant to cement the occupation of Palestinian territories and wriggle out from recognising Palestinian rights,” he said.

Abdel-Aziz explained: “Without a doubt, Israel’s continued pursuit of its illegal settlement policy, in blatant and flagrant violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2334 of 2016, constitutes a dangerous threat to the peace process, as do its relentless efforts to forcefully evacuate 46 Bedouin communities inhabited by more than 10,000 Palestinians in order to prevent them from returning to their original homes and lands in southern Israel.

The forced evacuation of the Bedouins of Abu Nawar and Khan Al-Ahmar, and the destruction of their homes, schools and health centres, in spite of the fact that 53 per cent of their inhabitants are children and 95 per cent of them are refugees registered with UNRWA, clearly forms another link in Israel’s campaign to impose the illusory concept of ‘Greater Israel’ by preventing refugees from returning to their homelands, on the one hand, and on the other by confiscating the lands of the remaining Palestinians communities and destroying the homes on these lands in order to make room for the expansion of the illegal settlements Maale Adumim and Kfar Adumim and to put paid to the desired geographic contiguity of the West Bank.”

The lack of ways in which Palestinians can protect themselves from Israeli forces also illustrates the need to bring peace talks back on track, Abdel-Aziz continued.

The problem extends beyond the feverish Israeli settlement expansion to include a campaign of genocide against the Palestinian people.

Since the events of “Land Day” on 30 March, Israeli armed forces have deliberately killed, as Israeli authorities themselves admitted, more than 150 defenceless Palestinian demonstrators, including at least 22 children, and wounded more than 15,300 Palestinian demonstrators, some critically.

Despite the resolution adopted in the resumed 10th session of the General Assembly on 13 June, calling on Israeli forces to cease their assaults with live ammunition against defenceless Palestinian people and to commit to safeguarding the Palestinian people’s right to peaceful protest in fulfillment of Israel’s obligations as an occupying power under the Geneva Conventions, the Israeli aerial bombardment of Gaza on 13 July, which also targeted defenceless women and children, has increased our conviction in the need to create an effective international mechanism to protect the Palestinian people from Israel’s brutal aggressions in accordance with the aforementioned General Assembly resolution.

We now look to the Security Council to support the creation and activation of such a mechanism in the framework of its support for important humanitarian principles, most notably Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and human security, which the council applies effectively in many other parts of the world.”

Abdel-Aziz rejected as irresponsible the US administration’s decisions to cut funds to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) as well as to freeze all economic aid to the Palestinian Authority. “Both the US and Israel have an ethical and economic responsibility towards Palestinians until a final solution to the refugee problem is worked out.”

“Finally, the Israeli defiance of the international community has reached its greatest extreme with the Israeli Knesset’s recent adoption of the so-called ‘Nationality Law’ which states that Israel is a state for the Jewish people, alone, excluding the Palestinian people, and that only Hebrew is the official language of the state, excluding Arabic, and which opens to doors only to Jewish immigration to Israel, excluding Muslims, Christians and other faiths.

The law also strongly encourages settlement expansion. This is a new step towards the annexation of the West Bank and towards the entrenchment of racism, the legitimisation of the Israeli government’s policy of apartheid on the basis of ethnic, religious and linguistic discrimination, and the promotion of the use of ethnic cleansing against the Palestinians inside the green line as a means to preserve the Jewishness of the Israeli state.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Israel’s nationality law

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