Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Israel-Palestine: The spoiler clause

Israel-Palestine: The spoiler clause
Published 27 Feb 2014 

There is a fresh demand in the decades-long Israel Palestinian peace talks and it threatens to bring them down. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants a future Palestinian state to formally recognise Israel as a 'Jewish state'. Problem is, Netanyahu has offered little detail about what that actually means. Perhaps for good reason, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is reluctant to sign off on the clause.

Last weekend we were given a preview of how various Israeli politicians would define a 'Jewish state'.  Former Israeli cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser gathered a broad coalition of ministers to discuss a possible bill. Hauser says 'It is in poor taste to make such a demand of the Palestinians when Israel itself has yet to anchor the issue as a Basic Law.' Fair enough.

Justice minister and peace talks negotiator Tzipi Livni joined far-right economy minister and leader of the Jewish Home Party Naftali Bennett to discuss the proposed 'Jewish State' bill. Not surprisingly, the two diverged on how it should be approached.

Livni is adamant the bill must be both Jewish and democratic. 'It is a mistake to deal only with Jewishness and not with democracy', she said. 'We need to deal with both in parallel and not give legal primacy to Jewishness.'

Bennett, however disagrees. 'There is no contradiction between Jewishness and democracy', he said. But that depends on who is interpreting 'Jewishness.' Jewishness may or may not be fair or democratic, depending on how it's defined.

So what would recognition as a Jewish state mean for Israelis who aren't Jewish? The 1.5 million Arabs living in Israel constitute roughly 20% of the country’s population. Where would this demand by Netanyahu leave them? [fold]

Israel's Declaration of Independence states 'it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.' But this is a statute and acts mostly as a guideline for Israel's courts. Whether the creed translates to all Israeli laws is arguable.

On Monday, the Knesset approved a controversial bill that distinguishes between Muslim, Druze and Christian Arabs. Proponents of the bill say it's designed to assist Arab workforce participation. Critics accuse its authors of 'cruelly dividing the Arab public' and say the distinction is unnecessary.

Civil rights groups say racism is on the increase. A 2013 report labeled the previous Knesset (2009-2013) the most racist in the history of the state. It found 'dozens of racist and anti-democratic draft bills mainly directed at the persecution of the Arab minority in Israel.' Yet many Arab Israelis would choose to remain in Israel should a two-state solution eventuate.

That fuels concerns among some of their Jewish neighbours. A  study of Arab-Israeli relations by Professor Sammy Smooha of Haifa University shows 64.9% of Jewish respondents fear Arabs endanger Israel because of their struggle to change its Jewish character. And 64.5% would choose the Jewish character of the state in the event of a contradiction with its democratic character.

Naftali Bennett advocates for the inclusion of Arab Israelis in the economy but whether they would enjoy equal rights in a 'Jewish state' remains unclear. Before Abbas signs onto the 'Jewish state' clause, it's only fair that Israel outlines how it reconciles Jewishness with democracy.

Netanyahu's demand may prove benign, or it may not. Either way, it would help if the PM provided more detail. Or is it simply his spoiler clause?

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