Mahmoud Abbas says that it is for Israel to decide how it wants to define itself. In a way, Abbas is right: Israel should decide how it wants to define itself . If Israel’s chief negotiator, Tzipi Livni, is the one blocking the official and legal definition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. why should Abbas be more royalist than the king?
The recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people has been demanded by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and rejected by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas because of both leaders’ understanding that such recognition would bury the co-called “right of return” and put a final end to Palestinian claims. When Abbas says that it is for Israel to decide how it wants to define itself, he fails to explain why he cannot accept Israel’s self-definition. Inadvertently, however, Abbas brings to our doorstep the intriguing fact that Israel’s chief negotiator, Tzipi Livni, is the one preventing the official and legal definition of Israel as a Jewish state.
Israel did define itself as a Jewish state in its Declaration of Independence (“We … hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in the land of Israel, to be known as the State of Israel”). But the legal status of the Declaration of Independence is that of a declaratory document with no constitutional value since the High Court of Justice’s 1948 “Ziv vs. Governik” ruling. And because Israel does not have a constitution, its declaratory self-definition as a “Jewish state” is not legally binding.
Instead of a constitution, Israel passed “basic laws” defining the powers of the three branches of Government (such as the “Knesset Law”) and protecting human rights (such as the “Human Dignity and Freedom Law”). No basic law, however, defines the state’s Jewish identity. The constitutions of nation-states, by contrast, generally cover the three issues of national identity, of separation of powers and of human rights (the French Constitution, for example, was proclaimed in the name of the “French People” and it defines the Republic as “secular, democratic, and social”).
There are, potentially, far-reaching consequences to the fact that Israel is a Jewish state de facto, but not de jure. De facto, Israel’s symbols and national anthem express the historical legacy and culture of the Jewish people; the Law of Return accords an automatic immigration right to Jews; Hebrew is the official language and national holidays are based on the Jewish calendar; the IDF protects all Jews and not only Israelis (such as the 1976 rescue of hostages in Entebbe); taxpayer money was used in the past to airlift Jews in distress and it is used today to fund Jewish education in the Diaspora.
Those de facto expressions of Israel’s self-declared identity as a Jewish state are legally challenged by Israel’s Arab minority and by Jewish post-Zionists. This legal challenge calls for a legal answer.
Nation-states (and Israel among them) express and protect the right of nations to self-determination. This national and collective right does not affect (at least in democratic nation-states) the civic and human rights of minorities. As Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua points out, nobody expects Denmark to add a Muslim symbol to its flag in order to make its Muslim minority feel good: Denmark is the nation-state of the Danish people, and yet all Danish citizens (including naturalized Muslim immigrants) are equal before the law. The same applies to Israel.
While justifiable and justified, however, Israel’s right to be a nation-state is challenged both conceptually and legally. The legal challenge could theoretically undo the Law of Return and state funding for Jewish educational programs overseas, for example. In light of the recurrent (and often successful) petitioning of the High Court of Justice in the past two decades, to repeal laws and government decisions, such a prospect is not far-fetched.
This is why former MK Avi Dichter (from the centrist Kadima party) submitted a bill in 2011 to legally define Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. The bill was bipartisan, having been co-signed by Kadima, Labor and Likud MKs. While most Kadima MKs co-signed the proposed bill, then Kadima Chairperson Tzipi Livni ordered them to withdraw their signatures when the bill was brought to her attention.
In an academic event organized this week by the Kohelet Policy Forum (an Israeli think-tank dedicated to national sovereignty and to personal freedom) on the stalled “Jewish state” bill, Tzipi Livni reiterated her opposition to the bill. She explained that it does not define Israel as a democratic state and claimed it could turn halakhah (Jewish rabbinical law) into a source of legislation (both claims are factually wrong: Article 3 of the proposed bill does define Israel as a democratic state, and nowhere does the bill refer to halakhah as a source of legislation).
In a way, Mahmoud Abbas is right: Israel should decide how it wants to define itself. How absurd, then, that Israel’s chief negotiator, Tzipi Livni, is the one blocking the official and legal definition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Why should Abbas be more royalist than the king?
The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Kohelet’s views