Israel’s new law is an elegy for Palestinian rights


Political calculations. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu attends the Knesset Plenary Hall session ahead of the vote on the National Law, on July 18. (AFP)

The howls of protest from Israeli Arabs, cold denunciation by prominent Palestinians and polite murmurs of discomfort from the European Union don’t fully explain the significance of the Jewish Nation-State law.

The legislation — Israel’s latest Basic Law, which is tantamount to a constitutional amendment — means that not only is the two-state solution dead, the chance of a one-state, rights-based resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli issue is as good as buried.

After the law was passed, those who care about Israel’s good name and those who say it has none to protect focused on the inequalities enshrined in it, the majoritarianism it celebrates and the discrimination it portends.

All of this is true, as is the reality the new law makes, in the words of Hassan Jabareen of the legal rights centre Adalah, “discrimination a constitutional value” in Israel. After all, it prioritises Jewish-only communities, downgrades the status of Arabic in Israel and defines the right to self-determination as only meant for Jews.

There has been mention of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s base political motives ahead of elections, possibly this year. With the law, Netanyahu is supposedly seeking to bolster his Likud party by cutting off the electoral appeal of those further to the right.

That would chiefly be Jewish Home, Likud’s partner in the governing coalition. It is led by the brash education minister, Naftali Bennett, who has made no secret of his ambition to succeed Netanyahu, though in March he graciously suggested the job upgrade was meant for “after the era of Netanyahu.”

In the circumstances, it’s right to see the passage of Israel’s new Basic Law as political planning by Netanyahu, a belt-and-braces measure against a man who recently said “in Israel, I compete with Netanyahu. During the elections, it’s a zero-sum game. You vote for him or for me.”

It would be foolish to let the short-term political imperatives of the new law obscure its longer-term implications. Too little attention has been paid to the self-satisfied comment offered after the legislation passed by the man who might be called the father of the latest Basic law.

That would be Knesset member Avi Dichter, who said the law would “prevent even the slightest thought, let alone attempt, to transform Israel to a country of all its citizen [sic].”

Dichter said something along the same lines seven years ago when he helped draft the bill that, with some changes, became law. Now with Likud, Dichter was part of the Kadima party when he sponsored the bill. In August 2011, he spelt out its rationale in unambiguous terms. “With the Basic Law we can finally denote Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people and not need the Palestinians’ favours and recognition of us as a Jewish state,” he said.

He added and this must be recognised as remarkably, if frighteningly, far-sighted: The law “will enable us to deal with the aspirations of radicals from both sides of the political spectrum to establish a binational state here.”

Consider what was happening with the moribund peace process when Dichter was writing that bill and seeking to block Israeli Arabs from their political and civil rights in a binational state: In December 2010, a frustrated United States had abandoned efforts to persuade Israel it should halt recently restarted settlements construction. In 2011, then Israeli President Shimon Peres conducted top-secret peace negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Netanyahu’s behalf but found the prime minister’s commitment wavering. Palestinians were increasingly talking about pressing for a UN Security Council vote to recognise a Palestinian state based on pre-1967 borders.

By 2016, a report from the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process pronounced on the increasingly doleful prospects for a two-state solution. It highlighted the increase in settlement activities and further consolidation of Israeli control over the West Bank. It pointed out the problem posed by the lack of Palestinian unity, the failure to form a national unity government and have elections.

The UN report confirmed what was already known: There was a near total collapse of belief — among Israelis and Palestinians alike — in a two-state solution. The Oslo process, which was supposed to have reached final status agreement by 1998, was nearly a decade past that aspirational end point. Experts talked about moving on to a different paradigm, a rights-based rather than territorial resolution of the conflict.

Last year, when US President Donald Trump unilaterally recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Palestinians started to speak a lot louder about pivoting to a different goal — a single, binational state, with comfort in numbers and assured rights in an Israel that prided itself on being the region’s only democracy.

The new Basic Law means there will be one state eventually but it will belong to only its Jewish citizens.