Israel’s Opposition Took the Bait of Bibi’s New Law

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The controversy over the nation-state law passed by Israel’s Knesset on July 19th continues to percolate. At first glance, it is hard to understand why.

The bill seems superfluous. It starts by asserting three principles that have been the essence of Jewish nationalism for more than a century: The land of Israel is “the historical homeland of the Jewish people.” The State of Israel is “the national home of the Jewish people.” And, in that state, the Jewish people are uniquely entitled to “national self-determination.”

From there the law reiterates long-established facts of Israeli law. The flag, which it describes, is the same old Star of David. The national anthem remains the same. Saturday is the day of rest (with alternatives for non-Jewish citizens). Hebrew is the official language (Arabic enjoys the same special status it has always had). Israel encourages free Jewish immigration with the goal of gathering “exiled” diaspora communities. And so on.  

This is Zionism 101. Since the founding of the state, it has gone without saying. So why did it need to be said now?

The answer is a national election is on the horizon. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an ex-special forces officer, always lays a few traps in the political battlefield beforehand. And his opponents consistently fall into them. That has happened again with the law.

Bibi’s two main rival parties joined with the anti-Zionist Arab List and a hard-left fringe party, Meretz, in voting against the law. The final count was 62-55 in favor, with two abstentions and one absence.       

A who’s who of Israeli writers and artists denounced the legislation as “a sin” and demanded it be rescinded forthwith. Yuval Noah Harari, the author of the international best-seller, “Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind,” publicly refused an invitation to appear with Bill Gates at an event sponsored by the Israeli consulate in LA.

Meanwhile, Israel’s airwaves and social media were dominated by commentators calling Bibi a fascist and the law a disgrace. The climate was hot enough that one or two of his centrist colleagues seemed to waver.

Then, at the weekly Sunday cabinet meeting, Bibi launched a counter-offensive. "Do not apologize" he ordered his ministers. “Attacks from the Israeli left, which calls itself Zionist, reveal how low it has sunk, how a basic tenet of Zionism -- a Jewish nation-state for the Israeli people in its country -- has become, for [the left] a rude and dirty term, a shameful principle. We are not ashamed of Zionism.”

Cabinet ministers heard the message and stood firm. The wisdom of Bibi’s approach was confirmed when the first post-legislation poll was published, showing 58 percent of the public favors the law, while just 34 percent (including 100 percent of Israeli Arabs) are opposed. Even more important, slightly more than half of Yesh Atid’s voters and a substantial number of Zionist Union supporters -- the two main opposition parties who voted against the law -- agree with the law.

These numbers will grow as Netanyahu relentlessly charges his opponents with abandoning the symbols and principles of the founding fathers. I don’t want to suggest that this is merely a cynical campaign strategy. Netanyahu, like every one of his predecessors (and the great majority of Israelis) believes that Israel is sui generis, a country founded with a specific purpose for a particular people. The law reflects that.

Israel is a democracy, but it’s not egalitarian. It is a Jewish democracy. All its citizens have civil rights (to vote, hold office, get a fair trial, speak freely and worship in their own way) but the Law of Return gives Jews anywhere in the world the right to automatic immigration. This is discrimination, plain and simple.

Members of the progressive intelligentsia and their Jewish counterparts abroad, want to see Israel drop its Zionist mission and become, like other modern democracies, simply a state of all its citizens. They argue that an officially Jewish state is both undemocratic and unattractive. In the long run, critics say, it could cost Israel its reputation and its American support.

Perhaps they are right about this. But the long run isn’t really the issue. Prime ministers stay in power one election at a time, and Bibi intends to win re-election to a fourth consecutive term. His right wing coalition partners will be with him because they have nowhere else to go. But if he makes inroads in the center, he can have the kind of broad government he has dreamed of.

If that comes to pass, he will look back on the 19th of July, 2018 as the day his opponents walked into the trap by voting against a bill that happens to enshrine the most cherished values of the Israeli mainstream.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.

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