Israel has determined that its Jewish identity is more important than its democracy. This will be bad
TEL AVIV – Israel’s new “nation-state law” asserts that “the right [to exercise] national self-determination” in the country is “unique to the Jewish people,” sets Hebrew as the country’s official language, and establishes “Jewish settlement as a national value” that the state will work to advance. Liberals denounce the law for infringing on the Arab minority’s civil rights. But it may weaken Israeli democracy in an even more insidious way.
The new law – the latest move in the reckless drive by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s far-right coalition to turn Israel into an illiberal democracy—contradicts the 1948 Declaration of Independence and the 1992 Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. Both guarantee the individual rights of all, Jews and Arabs.
Yet, in practice, the Israeli government has been defying those legal norms for a long time. While Arab Israelis may technically be constitutionally equal to Jewish Israelis , that has not stopped the government from discriminating against them. Most state land, for example, is held in trust for the Jewish people.
Likewise, long before the new law established that the Israeli government would “labor to encourage and promote” the “establishment and development” of Jewish settlements, the government was doing just that. Not a single new Arab village—much less a city—has been created since the establishment of the state of Israel 70 years ago, and old villages lack planning and zoning programs. This is why illegal construction is so common in Arab villages.
Moreover, a broad array of Israeli laws already explicitly and implicitly defines Israel as a Jewish state—a definition on which the international community agrees. The 1947 United Nations Partition Plan defines Israel as the state of the Jewish people. And the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has long been based on the principle that the Palestinians should exercise their right of national self-determination in a separate state on the other side of the pre-1967 borders.
Most Israeli Jews believe that there should be limits on their Arab counterparts’ political influence, with “crucial national decisions,” such as self-determination, being left to the Jewish majority. That is why former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who made social investment in Arab communities a national priority, resisted making the passage of the Oslo Accords dependent on Arab parliamentary support.
Despite all of this, as of 2017, over 60 percent of Arab Israelis reported that Israel is a good place to live (down from 64 percent in 2015), and 60 percent would rather live in Israel than in any other country in the world (up from 58.8 percent in 2015). Furthermore, in 2012, 60 percent of Arab Israelis reported that they accepted Israel as a Jewish-majority state, with official Jewish characteristics, such as Hebrew being the official language and Saturday being the accepted day of rest.
If the nation-state law’s tenets were already in effect, and generally accepted by the population, why pass it at all? The obvious explanation lies in the fact that, like US President Donald Trump and populist leaders throughout Europe, Netanyahu amasses political capital by appealing to the population’s base tribal instincts.
With ultra-nationalist and anti-Arab rhetoric, Netanyahu manipulates Israelis into believing that they are under threat, physically, demographically, and even existentially, thereby pitting them against their Arab compatriots. He won the 2015 election after having warned that the Arabs were heading to the polling stations “in droves.”
All of this, together with the demise of the peace process, has left a majority of Israelis convinced that their country cannot be both Jewish and fully democratic. So they have accepted the erosion of democratic values that Netanyahu has overseen, determining that they must put identity first. Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that Israeli Arabs’ recognition of Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish and democratic state fell from 53.6 percent in 2015 to 49.1 percent just two years later.
But the nation-state law is not just another means of accumulating political capital among an increasing identity-focused electorate. There is another motivation at play—one that poses an even more serious threat to Israeli democracy.
Israel is a prosperous, advanced economy, but it is built on a labor market that is too small. Arab Israelis, however, represent a considerable labor pool (as does the Orthodox Jewish community, among whom the labor-force participation rate is much lower than among secular Jews). To advance its interest in Arab Israelis’ economic and social integration, in December 2015 the Israeli government approved a truly historic five-year plan.
Nearly three years later, the integration of Arab Israelis is progressing apace. According to the 2017 Israel Democracy Institute Index of Arab-Israeli relations, 70 percent of Israel’s Arabs speak fluent Hebrew, and 77 percent are not interested in separation. Moreover, Tel Aviv University’s Amal Jamal has highlighted the consistent increase in the number of Arab academics in Israel and the emergence of an Arab middle class in the country. This goes, he found, with a rise in national sentiments.
This is where the nation-state law comes in. The increasing integration and prosperity of Arab Israelis is empowering them to push back against discriminatory policies. With the nation-state law in place, however, their legal recourse will be severely constrained.
But this may not only be a matter of silencing an increasingly empowered minority; Israeli’s government could be laying the groundwork to suppress the Arab majority that would emerge if (or when) it annexes the occupied Palestinian territories. In this sense, the nation-state law is a kind of hedge against the government’s own expansionist policies—and a potentially devastating blow to Israeli democracy.
With the two-state solution all but dead, Israel has determined that its Jewish identity is more important than its democracy. This will be bad not just for its Arab citizens, but ultimately for Jewish Israelis as well.
Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, is Vice President of the Toledo International Center for Peace