By Isabel Kershner, The New York Times
JERUSALEM — The Israeli cabinet on Sunday approved contentious draft legislation that emphasizes Israel’s Jewish character above its democratic nature in a move that critics said could undermine the fragile relationship with the country’s Arab minority at a time of heightened tensions.
The promotion of a so-called nationality law has long stirred fierce debate inside Israel, where opponents fear that any legislation that gives pre-eminence to Israel’s Jewishness could lead to an internal rift as well as damage Israel’s relations with Jews in other countries and with the country’s international allies.
The vote on Sunday also highlighted political fissures within the governing coalition amid increasing talk of early elections. The bill, a proposal for a basic law titled “Israel, the Nation-State of the Jewish People,” passed 14 to 6, with two centrist coalition parties opposing it. Parliament still has to approve the bill for it to become law.
Answering critics who have questioned why such legislation is necessary 66 years after the founding of the state, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahudefended the push for legislation.
“There are many who are challenging Israel’s character as the national state of the Jewish people,” he said before the cabinet vote. “The Palestinians refuse to recognize this, and there is also opposition from within.”
He added, “There are those — including those who deny our national rights — who would like to establish autonomy in the Galilee and the Negev,” referring to areas of Israel with large concentrations of Arab citizens, who make up more than 20 percent of the population.
Mr. Netanyahu is expected to amend the draft before any final vote in Parliament to ensure, as he put it, the principle of “equal individual rights for every citizen.”
But Ahmad Tibi, a veteran Arab member of the Israeli Parliament, said there had long been tension between the halves of the term “Jewish democracy,” as Israel defines itself.
Speaking by telephone from New York, where he was attending a conference at the United Nations, Mr. Tibi said the proposed legislation “confirms that the Jewish and democratic state is fiction.”
He described Israel instead as a “Judocracy” that would never recognize the collective rights of a minority that has long suffered discrimination.
Adding to the rancor surrounding the vote, many here saw it as a cynical political maneuver intended by Mr. Netanyahu to buy the loyalty of hard-line members of his conservative Likud Party ahead of party primaries.
Among other things, the initial drafts promoted as private initiatives by right-wing lawmakers and approved on Sunday relegate Arabic from an official language to one with a “special status.”
In what appeared to be a political deal, Mr. Netanyahu promised government support for the hard-line versions of the bill in a first reading in Parliament this week on the condition that the law would be moderated before any final approval.
Israeli legal experts said such legislation would be superfluous, at best, and in its more radical form, undemocratic.
“It is an unnecessary piece of legislation because Israel’s Jewish and democratic nature is established in judgments and parliamentary legislation and in the Declaration of Independence,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan research center in Jerusalem, and a former member of Parliament.
Avinoam Bar-Yosef, president of the Jewish People Policy Institute, another Jerusalem research center, said in a statement that any distortion of the balance between Israel’s Jewish and democratic character “may stain Israel in the eyes of the free world and distance diaspora Jews who are counted as supporters of the Zionist project.”
Israel has no constitution; instead its constitutional character is made up of basic laws, judgments and the Declaration of Independence of 1948, which enshrines the right of the Jewish people to their own sovereign state and also pledges to “uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens.”
Yair Lapid, the minister of finance and the leader of Yesh Atid, one of the coalition parties that opposed the preliminary bill, said he had spoken on Sunday with the family of Zidan Saif, a Druse police officer who was killed while protecting Jewish worshipers from two Palestinians who attacked a Jerusalem synagogue with butchers knives and a gun last week.
“What will we say to him? What will we say to them?” Mr. Lapid asked. “That the deceased is a second-class citizen in the state of Israel because there are primaries in the Likud?”
Tzipi Livni, the centrist justice minister, also opposed the bill and posted a copy of the Declaration of Independence on her Facebook page.
The stormy cabinet debate came against the background of heightened Muslim-Jewish tensions over a revered holy site in Jerusalem, protests and a recent wave of deadly Palestinian attacks against Israelis in the city and beyond.
The fatal police shooting of an Arab man in a village in northern Israel set off days of rioting.
In response, Mr. Netanyahu said he was pushing for new legislation to revoke the rights of residents who “participate in terrorism or incitement against the state of Israel,” including the throwing of stones and firebombs. Mainly referring to Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, he said those who attack Israel, and their families, should not enjoy welfare benefits.
Separately, an Israeli border police officer was charged with manslaughter on Sunday in a case involving the fatal shooting of two Palestinian teenagers during a West Bank protest in May. The Justice Ministry said evidence suggested that the officer deliberately fired a live bullet at one of the teens, despite orders to use only rubber-coated bullets.
And in Gaza, a Palestinian man was killed by Israeli Army fire as he approached the border fence. It was the first such fatality since an August cease-fire that ended 50 days of fighting between Israel and Hamas, the Islamic militant group that dominates Gaza.