In a rare act, the Presidency of the Knesset (a ten-member group representing most parties) last week disqualified a bill moved by Israeli Palestinian parliamentarians from coming to a debate or vote. The bill in question was named “Basic Law: Israel [is a] State of All Its Citizens.”
As the names hints, the bill would have declared that Israel belongs not to its Jews but to all its residents. The Knesset Presidency decided the bill was too dangerous to come to a vote.
The bill was put forward by the Joint List, a mega-party composed of three Israeli-Palestinian parties, forced to run together because the Zionist majority hiked the percentage of votes needed for a seat in the Knesset to 4%, which none of the parties would pass on its own, in an explicit attempt to ban them.
The chances of the bill passing even a preliminary reading was slim: similar to the chance that a baked pig, an apple in its mouth, would spread its wings and fly. The following parties supported the Presidency decision: Likud, Labor, Yesh Atid, Kulanu, Israel Beteinu and Torah Judaism. A member of another party, Betzalel Smotrich of the Jewish Home (Naftali Bennett’s party), abstained, saying that even though he thought the decision was justified, he did not think the Presidency had the authority to disqualify a bill.
Together with the eight Members of Knesset of the Jewish Home, the Presidency could field 95 MKs out of 120 to vote the bill down. And yet, it was considered too dangerous to debate.
Just what was so problematic in the bill? The Knesset legal counsel, Eyal Yanon, said it clearly:
“[The bill] contains several articles which are meant to change the character of Israel from the national state of the Jewish People into a state which grants equal status, from the national point of view, to the Jewish nation and the Arab nation.”
That is, the very debate about the bill would have raised troubling questions, proving yet again that a Jewish state and a democratic one cannot co-exist. They’re a contradiction in terms. A democratic country allows for a peaceful change of its form of regime. Capitalistic Great Britain lived under a socialist government. Almost every democratic country (sorry, Switzerland!) granted women the vote in the 1910’s or 1920’s. The franchise in the US today does not resemble what it was in 1791 or even 1871. Western countries have changed – not without blood and fire, true – from a regime controlled by the upper and bourgeois classes to one that, through gritted teeth, was forced to give rights to the working classes. This came about as a result of a stubborn struggle, which often had a grassroots wing, but always had a parliamentary one.
This wasn’t so long ago: As Obama noted in his Selma March speech, the marchers were “called Communists, half-breeds, outside agitators, sexual and moral degenerates, and worse – everything but the name their parents gave them.” The Selma march was the grassroots wing; the violence used by the white regime – violence which is essential, without which, without the “grave downhill” which is necessary for “taking the top” – forced the parliamentary wing, always more hesitant and “decent”, always a few steps behind the activist wing, to accept the Civil Rights Acts.
Even though relatively passive, the parliamentary wing is critical. No peaceful change can come without it.
Now the Zionist parts of the Knesset struck down the option of parliamentary change. There can be only one regime in Israel: a Jewish one. Democracy is a surplus: in Hebrew we say “medina Yehudit ve’democratit.” A state Jewish and democratic. But the “ve” meaning “and” precedes democratic. The state’s Jewishness is essential; democracy, less so.
But what is this “Jewish state” all about? Embarrassingly, the parties which disqualified the bill can’t seem to agree on that. It’s not easy, nowadays, to know the Likud’s position; as part of its metamorphosis into the monarchical party of the House of Netanyahu, it did not publish a platform in the last two elections. But there are sharp disagreements between Lapid’s party, Yesh Atid, between Labor and the Jewish Brotherhood, and even between the placeholders MKs in Lieberman and Kachlon’s parties there are endless divisions on just what “Jewish state” means.
But on one point, all these parties can agree: Be the Jewish state what it will, whatever face it will wear, it will not be the state of the Israeli Palestinians, and its features will never reflect theirs.
Liberal Zionists have been fond, for the past 50 years, of wasting precious oxygen and time on the question whether there can be a Jewish state which is also democratic. However, in reality as it is lived, not in some ideal, Platonic plane: that is, in the reality as it is shaped by the representatives of the vast majority of Israel’s Jews, 20% of the country’s citizens may not express, in the highest forum of the body politic that calls itself Israel, their views as to the ways the country should be governed and how it would express itself to its citizens.
They can vote, yes; they can even be voted into office; but they cannot have any influence. And we allow them to be elected, more and more, because we desperately need to pretend to the world we’re not Russia, not yet anyway.
The diminishing of the rights of the Palestinians MKs is a slow, slippery process. During the two earlier Knessets, no bills were disqualified. The last time this power was used, in the 18th Knesset (elected in 2009), it was used – you guessed it – to quash two bills authored by a Palestinian MK, Ahmed Tibi. Prior to this case, no use of this power was made.
At the same time, the Knesset and its homo sovieticus chairman, Yuli Edelstein, are busy promoting the Nationality Bill, which will delimit the space allowed Palestinian Israelis even more. The Knesset has made its choice; now let it live with it.
Update: ‘Adala, a human rights organization dealing with protecting the rights of Israeli Palestinians, has petitioned the High Court of Justice, demanding it will declare the Presidency decision illegal.