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Israel PM looking to enshrine 'Jewish state' in law

May 1, 2014 7:30 A.M. (Updated: May 4, 2014 2:25 A.M.)
JERUSALEM (AFP) -- Israel will seek to anchor its status as the national homeland of the Jewish people in law, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday.

"One of my main missions as prime minister of Israel is to bolster the status of the State of Israel as the national state of our people," Netanyahu said in a speech in Tel Aviv, a transcript of which was provided by his office.

"To this end, it is my intention to submit a basic law to the Knesset (parliament) that would provide a constitutional anchor for Israel's status as the national state of the Jewish people."

Netanyahu has made recognition of Israel as a Jewish state a key demand in the crisis-hit peace talks with the PLO, which formally drew to a close on Tuesday.

The PLO recognized Israel's right to exist in 1988 and say accepting Israel as a Jewish state would be tantamount to accepting the Nakba, or "catastrophe", of 1948, in which around 760,000 Palestinians were forcibly displaced by Jewish militias.

The chairman of Netanyahu's coalition Yariv Levin congratulated Netanyahu for his "historic decision, that will bring Israel back to a Zionist course after years of ongoing legal eroding of the fundamental principles, upon which the state was founded."

Previous attempts failed

"The prime minister has instructed me to push forward with the legislation without delay, as a continuation of the original bill I initiated," said Levin, a hardline member of Netanyahu's Likud party.

In 2011 Avi Dichter, a member of the Kadima party, attempted to pass such a law, but it was shot down by then-Kadima head Tzipi Livni. In 2013, Levin brought forth a mellowed version of a similar bill, which also was not advanced.

Netanyahu's Thursday declaration was met with fierce opposition from the very coalition minister in charge of legislation, Justice Minister Livni, who vowed she would not enable such a law.

"Livni will continue to defend democracy, she has objected past initiatives that come at the account of democratic values in favor of 'Jewish' ones, and will do so even if the one proposing (the law) is prime minister," her spokeswoman Mia Bengel wrote on Twitter.

Menachem Hofnung, a professor of political science at the Hebrew university, said such a proposal would probably not have a majority in the current cabinet.

He also said such a law was "not necessary".

"There are already basic laws which state that Israel is Jewish and democratic," he said. "So I'm not sure what is the effect of another law, besides putting another obstacle to the peace process."

Palestinian officials have repeatedly said that recognizing the concept of Israel as a "Jewish state" is unnecessary and threatens the rights of nearly 1.3 million Palestinian citizens of Israel who remained in their homes during the displacement of the majority of the Palestinian population.

Earlier this year, PLO Executive Committee Member Hanan Ashrawi said that Israel wants to "create a narrative that denies the Palestinian presence, rights, and continuity on the historic Palestinian lands."

A "Jewish state" recognition would exempt Israel from its responsibility toward the Palestinian refugees who were forcibly displaced from their homes in 1948, she added.

The right of Palestinian refugees to return to their land is enshrined in article 11 of UN resolution 194.

Israel has never officially recognized the right of a Palestinian state to exist.

Ma'an staff contributed to this report.
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