Last Monday, in a very rare act, the Knesset Presidium (the speaker and deputy speakers) decided to prevent the three members of Balad in the Joint List – MKs Jamal Zahalka, Haneen Zoabi and Goumha Azbarga – from laying a bill they had submitted on the Knesset table.

The bill was titled “Basic Law: the State of all its Citizens,” and it provided the basis for Israel’s turning into a binational state, in which the Jewish nation and the Palestinian nation would both enjoy complete equality. In other words, Israel would cease to be a predominantly Jewish state, and certainly not the State of the Jewish people, as various versions of the so-called Nation Law – none of which has as yet been enacted – stipulate. This would mean, for example, that the Law of Return would be canceled, and the symbols of the state would cease being Jewish symbols.

Among the Jewish citizens of Israel, very few support this concept. Israel was established as a Jewish state – the only Jewish state in the world, and a haven for the Jewish people, with full civil and human rights for minorities – not as a binational state. However, even among those who reject the basic concept that appears in the submitted bill, many wonder why the issue cannot be debated openly in the Knesset, before being rejected, and what its rejection out of hand, without debate, implies with regard to Israeli democracy.

To be sure, the Knesset Presidium was well within its authority when it denied the laying of the bill on the Knesset table. Article 75(e) of the Knesset Rules of Procedure stipulates that “the Knesset Presidium shall not approve a bill that, in its opinion, denies the existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people,” and the Balad bill did exactly that.

All this should be seen against the background of article 7a(a)(1) of Basic Law: the Knesset, which prevents lists and individual candidates from running in elections to the Knesset if they reject the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. The High Court of Justice has interpreted this to mean taking action in this direction – not just talking about it. Submitting a bill that rejects the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish state is certain an act – not just words.

In addition, article 57(i1) of the Elections to the Knesset Law stipulates that every candidate in a list running in the Knesset elections must declare in writing: “I undertake to remain faithful to the State of Israel and avoid acting contrary to the principles of article 7a to Basic Law: the Knesset.” This, of course, includes the Balad MKs and excludes the relevance of the footnote to article 75(e), “the Presidium’s authority does not include the power to deny approval from a bill due to a reservation, even the strongest one, regarding its political-social content.”

THE BILL submitted by Zahalka, Zoabi and Azbarga should also be viewed against a broader context. Just as Basic Law: Israel the State of the Jewish People, which was first raised by MK Avi Dichter (Likud) in the 18th Knesset, and subsequent bills with the same or similar titles, came as a reaction to claims that the balance had been broken between Israel’s being a Jewish and democratic state as a result of two Basic Laws relating to human rights, enacted in 1992, so the Balad bill, and other bills submitted by Arab MKs on the issue of the status of Israeli Arabs, are a reaction to a feeling within the Arab population that Dichter’s bill, and the general atmosphere in Israel in the last decade, seek to downgrade the status of Israeli Arabs.

However, it should be noted that all the bills submitted by Arab MKs in the past around this issue dealt with the recognition of the Arab minority as a national minority, or with securing equality for the Arab population in Israel, and did not deny Israel’s Jewish nature. Consequently, none of them were rejected by the Knesset Presidium, and subsequently none went beyond preliminary debate, or even reached preliminary debate. Supposedly, had the current bill stated that Israel is the state of the Jewish people and all its non-Jewish citizens, it, too, would not have been blocked.

Incidentally, it is extremely rare that the Knesset Presidium rejects a bill out of hand. The first time that this happened was in the case of several bills submitted by MK Meir Kahane in the 11th Knesset on the basis of their anti-Arab, racist nature, before the Knesset Rules of Procedure even dealt with this sort of situation.

In the 18th Knesset three bills submitted by MK Ahmad Tibi were rejected – one that called for the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine; one recognizing the Palestinian Nakba (the banishment of Palestinian Arabs in 1948/9 from the territory of the State of Israel); and the third obliging all schools in Israel to include the Nakba in their syllabus. Unlike the current case, no one can claim that these bills – objectionable as they may be to Israeli Jews – deny Israel’s being a Jewish state. They simply reject the assumption that the whole of Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people, or that the only recognized narrative regarding what happened in 1948/9 is the Jewish Israeli narrative. Thus, it can be argued that with regard to Tibi’s bills, the Presidium was wrong.
Now Tibi is threatening to challenge the Knesset Presidium, of which he is a member, with a bill that calls for turning Israel into the state of all its nations. It will be interesting to see whether he will manage to word his bill in such a way that the Presidium will enable it to be placed on the Knesset agenda for preliminary debate. What is absolutely certain is that neither Balad nor Tibi had/have any illusions regarding the chances of their bills being approved by the Knesset. It is all part of a reaction to, and protest against, the anti-Arab atmosphere prevailing today, both among many government ministers (including Miri Regev, Gilad Arden, Yoav Gallant, not to mention Benjamin Netanyahu himself) and in the Knesset.

The bottom line is that 20% of the citizens of Israel are Arabs, and they have a right to expect more respect for their identity and rights in “the only democracy in the Middle East.” They should only make sure that they act within the framework of the existing rules and laws, so as not to play into the hands of those who do not wish them well.