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In Israel, A Clash Over What The Nation Is And Who It's For


Let's go next to Israel where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is getting close to calling early elections. His coalition government is falling apart. It reached a tipping point over whether to name Israel a Jewish state. This may seem odd to those who know Israel was founded to be the homeland of the Jewish people. But some of Netanyahu's coalition partners want - while others oppose - a plan to enshrine that status in law. This political fight gets to the question of what Israel wants to be because Israel was also founded as a democracy. Last week on NPR News, we heard Netanyahu's spokesman Mark Regev.


MARK REGEV: The democratic side has of course been codified in a series of laws, and now the Jewish side will also be codified.

INSKEEP: NPR's Emily Harris is on the line from Jerusalem to help explain what's going on here. Hi, Emily.


INSKEEP: What's Regev talking about?

HARRIS: Well, he's talking about the idea that's central in Israel's founding - Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people - and taking this concept and writing it into what's known here as a basic law that's somewhat on par with the U.S. constitution. So it would potentially increase the influence of Jewish values as reflected in the government of Israel.

INSKEEP: Well, why would that stir up opposition even among Netanyahu's own coalition partners in this center-right government?

HARRIS: You know, it's a really really emotional issue here. Israel was not only founded as the nation-state of the Jewish people. It was also founded as a democracy. The declaration of independence guarantees the, quote, "social and political rights of all inhabitants of Israel." So much of the opposition is centered around the worry that this will make Israel less democratic by reducing the status of non-Jewish citizens to something perhaps second-class.

INSKEEP: Well, how many Israeli citizens are not Jewish?

HARRIS: Actually more than 20 percent of Israeli citizens are not Jewish. Most of them are Arabs - mostly Palestinians. One version of this proposed law would downgrade Arabic from its current status as an official language. Netanyahu put out a milder set of principles that he wants spelled out in a new law. But critics say that these also undermine the democratic nature of Israel.

The main point that Netanyahu's proposal has is that, while individuals retain their individual rights, only Jews have the right to national self-determination. It sounds kind of complicated, but basically it means things like the state valuing and preserving the heritage of Jewish residents, not others. Muslims or Christians would not have collective community rights on the national level.

INSKEEP: Well, Netanyahu and others have talked of Israel being both at the same time a Jewish state and a democratic state. Israel's president, though, has said there are contradictions between being those two things. Does being a Jewish state automatically mean that other people would be second-class?

HARRIS: That is really central to the debate here. And Israel's president, I should point out, has no role in lawmaking. But he does have a podium, and he has spoken out very strongly both about discrimination against Arab citizens of Israel and against this proposed Jewish nation-state bill. Reuven Rivlin is the current president, and he said in a speech last week that first of all, Israel is already clearly a Jewish nation, so why do this? He also said the proposed legislation, as he sees it, seeks to set a new hierarchy not balancing democracy with Jewishness of Israel but putting Israel as a Jewish state above Israel as a democratic state.

INSKEEP: Well, in the end here, we're talking about a proposal that affects Israel's identity rather than anything more concrete like an economic plan. What has made this something that has started Netanyahu's coalition toward cracking up and perhaps leading to elections here?

HARRIS: This is not the only thing that is leading to the coalition breakup. The mix of parties in this coalition has had a lot of difficulty since they came together almost two years ago. Economic budget issues have been major disagreements - also the relationship with the U.S., which hit some real lows over the past months. But this proposal to enshrine the Jewish character of Israel into a new basic law is seen by many Israelis as somewhat of a litmus test for politicians. What is a leader's vision of Israel? And in that sense, it's divisive, and it's coming at a time when the ties binding the coalition partners were already wearing thin.

INSKEEP: Emily, always a pleasure to talk with you.

HARRIS: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Emily Harris in Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

International Correspondent Emily Harris is based in Jerusalem as part of NPR's Mideast team. Her post covers news related to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She began this role in March of 2013.