Israel's government is on the edge of collapse. The prime minister and senior cabinet members are trading insults as if they are already campaigning against each other. OK, that's fairly normal. Israeli coalitions are unstable partnerships of enemies. When they can't compromise on an unavoidable issue—the budget, for instance, or peace talks—they threaten each other with going back to the voters. Sometimes threats become reality.
What's abnormal is that for the past week Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has seemed determined to scuttle his current coalition of the right and center over an entirely avoidable crisis: his desire to pass a law constitutionally defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jews. His centrist partners see the law, correctly, as an assault on democracy. The law will inflame tensions with the Arab minority, and damage Israel's already poor international standing.
Why go to the trouble? Over three-quarters of Israel's citizens are Jews, who quintessentially display their Jewishness by arguing constantly about what "Jewish" means. Public life is conducted in Hebrew; schools and offices shut for Passover and Rosh Hashanah. The crisis looks so unnecessary that pundits have suggested that it's a pretext: Netanyahu has decided that he'll do better in elections now than later, and believes that the nation-state law will allow him to run as the candidate of patriotism.
This Machiavellian explanation is too kind. The bill is Netanyahu-ist, and that's what really is frightening.
The nation-state bill was submitted by three Knesset members, including Yariv Levin, chair of the Likud delegation in parliament. Netanyahu has circulated a set of guidelines for softening the legislation once it's in committee, but his changes wouldn't alter the bill’s essence. The law would become part of Israel's still-incomplete constitution. It would declare that Israel is the nation-state of the Jews, and that no other nationality has a right to self-determination within Israel. It would state that Israel is a democracy and that the individual rights of all citizens will be preserved—but even in Netanyahu's amended version, the law would not refer to equal rights. This is only a partial list of the problems.
To avoid possible misunderstanding: This isn't religious legislation; it doesn't aim at creating a theocracy. The bill's three authors are not religious, nor is Netanyahu. It defines the Jews as a nationality, a collective ethnic entity, and commits the state to preserving that collective and no other. Its roots may be found in the illiberal strands of European nationalism. It strongly implies that if a court is faced with a conflict between democracy and the purported interest of the nationality, it must give at least as much weight to the latter. It doesn't create inequality between Jewish and Arab citizens; that already exists, institutionally and informally. Rather, it enshrines inequality, protects it against legal and political challenge.
And that's what the right seeks. Levin, one of bill's authors, explained in a radio interview why he believes it necessary. The justices of Israel's Supreme Court justices, he said, "belong to the radical left" and "enforce their values on all of society."
Here's the context: Over at least a quarter century, there has been gradual progress toward greater protection of human rights and minorities within Israel proper—the actual state, not including the occupied territories. The Knesset played a key role when it passed the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, a bill of rights, in 1992. Supreme Court decisions, often in suits brought by human rights groups, have moved the process along. A 1989 court decision, for instance, drastically limited the powers of the military censor, a holdover from British colonial rule. A 2006 ruling rejected a government policy that discriminated against Arab towns in school funding. Two months ago the Supreme Court overturned a law allowing the state to jail asylum-seekers who have come to Israel from Africa.
For advocates of a more democratic Israel, this process has been altogether too slow, and the Supreme Court cautious to a fault. For Levin and his colleagues on the right, the old and proper order is crumbling under assault, and the nation-state law is needed to protect it. The bill expresses classic conservative backlash. Or as centrist Justice Minister Tzipi Livni has said, it's the work of "the Tea Party of Israeli politics."
Enter Netanyahu, sipping tea. "Over the years, a clear imbalance has been created between the Jewish and democratic dimensions" of the state, he said in a Knesset speech last week. "There's an imbalance between the rights of citizens and the rights of the nation"—“the nation meaning “the Jews.” In that formulation, the nation is not just the aggregate of its members; it exists in itself, and its rights must sometimes be preserved at the cost of rights of individual, be they Jews or non-Jews.
But Netanyahu offered additional justifications. The law "will foil attempts to flood Israel with Palestinian refugees," he declared, as opposition Knesset members heckled him. "It will block those who aspire to create Arab autonomy in the Galilee and Negev." Both comments were strange. On the rare occasions that the idea of Arab national autonomy within Israel is raised, it's usually by rightwing Jews expressing their fears. Yet by negating Arab aspirations for integration and equality, the nation-state law might well spark demands for autonomy. An act of the Knesset isn't going to resolve the Palestinian refugee issue. Netanyahu's faith that it will reflects an old trait of the Israeli right—a near-mystic belief in the power of declarations to change reality.
Seen from abroad, a country and its leader can easily be equated. That's an optical illusion created by distance. Netanyahu's coalition is particularly fragile because the right lost votes in the 2013 election, forcing him to share power with two centrist parties. The nation-state bill doesn't represent a political shift of the country as a whole. Rather, it signifies an increasingly bitter fight over Israel's direction. Netanyahu does not even represent the right as a whole. In a public speech last week, President Reuven Rivlin blasted the nation-state bill for falsely creating a contradiction between Jewish and democratic. Rivlin is a life-long Likud man. The presidency is a ceremonial role, normally above the political fray. Rivlin strained protocol to express his distaste for the law.
If the crisis does produce new elections, Netanyahu may be right that the nation-state bill will make fine campaign material, diverting attention from real issues and allowing him to smear everyone to his left as unpatriotic. Then again, Netanyahu's assault on democracy may galvanize and unite the center and left for the first time in years. An Israeli election campaign is like a war: It's much easier to start one than to predict how it will end. If Netanyahu turns the next one into an argument about whether "Jewish" means more democratic or less, all bets are off.