Israel cabinet votes to enshrine 'Jewish state' in law

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israel's government on Sunday endorsed a proposal to anchor in law the country's status as the national homeland of the Jewish people, drawing fire from critics who said it weakened democracy.

"The cabinet today approved a draft basic law: 'Israel the national state of the Jewish people'," said a statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party, one of whose MPs was a sponsor.

Netanyahu also announced a separate initiative to strip Arabs of their residency and welfare rights if they or their relatives take part in unrest.

Following a stormy meeting, the cabinet voted 14 to six in favour of the national homeland proposal, with ministers from the two centrist parties - HaTnuah led by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Yesh Atid of Finance Minister Yair Lapid - voting against, media reports said.

The proposal would mean Israel would no longer be defined in its Basic Laws as "Jewish and democratic" but instead as "the national homeland of the Jewish people".

Critics, who include the government's top legal adviser, say the proposed change to the laws that act as Israel's effective constitution could institutionalise discrimination against its 1.7 million Arab citizens.

By giving preeminence to the "Jewish" character of Israel over its democratic nature, the law in its current format is anti-democratic, they say.

The Israel Democracy Institute said that the state's Jewish identity is already contained in its 1948 declaration of independence.

"However, that declaration also emphasises the Jewish State's absolute commitment to the equality of all of its citizens - an essential component missing from the proposals being presented to the government today," IDI president Yohanan Plesner said in a statement.

Netanyahu insisted the law would give equal weight to both characteristics.

"There are those who would like the democratic to prevail over the Jewish and there are those who would like the Jewish to prevail over the democratic... both of these values are equal and both must be considered to the same degree," he said.

The proposal has provoked uproar among MPs and ministers from the centre and the left, who fear the text only institutionalises discrimination.

There are also concerns about a plan to revoke the rights of any Arab resident who took part in or incited violence, even stone-throwing.

"It cannot be that those who attack Israeli citizens and call for the elimination of the State of Israel will enjoy rights such as National Insurance - and their family members as well, who support them," Netanyahu told ministers.

Israel's Arab minority, comprising some 20 per cent of the population, are descendants of Palestinians who stayed after the establishment of Israel in 1948.

If the Jewish homeland proposal becomes law, it would mean "the institutionalisation of racism, which is already a reality on the street, in both law and at the heart of the political system", warned Majd Kayyal of Adalah, the Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.

"Democracy guarantees that all citizens have the same rights and are equal before the state, but this racist change introduces a distinction on the basis of religion," he said.

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, the government's legal adviser, has also criticised the proposal, saying it weakens the state's democratic character.

The version of the bill approved by ministers on Sunday represents a nod from Netanyahu to the most hardline elements of his party and ruling coalition as talk grows of an early election.

But it will be incorporated into a hybrid proposal approved by Netanyahu, the Likud statement said.

"The bill will pass a preliminary reading in the Knesset this Wednesday and will be revised to conform with a government bill which will be drafted and approved by the cabinet soon," it said.

The final version of the text submitted to parliament for approval is likely to be softened, predicted Denis Charbit, a political scientist at Israel's Open University.

"The text proposed by Netanyahu is more moderate but it is still problematic because he disassociates the Jewish character from the democratic character of the state and this institutionalises a hierarchy between them, to the detriment of democracy," he said.