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Netanyahu doubles down support for controversial 'nation-state' bill

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, sits next to Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday, April 10, 2016.
Gali Tibbon/Pool Photo via AP
In May, a watered-down version passed a first reading in the country's parliament, the Knesset.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doubled down his support on Thursday for a controversial "nation-state" bill before parliament that has attracted criticism from the country's president.

The legislation, strongly backed by Netanyahu's ruling Likud party, seeks to enshrine the Jewish character of the state by declaring it “the national home of the Jewish people” and establishing its “unique” right to self-determination.

A clause that “the state can allow a community composed of people of the same faith or nationality to maintain an exclusive community,” has sparked unease from the government's own legal gurus and President Reuven Rivlin because it would allow for Jewish-only towns or the exclusion of minorities.

"In Israeli democracy, we will continue to guarantee the rights of the individual and the collective, and these will continue to be guaranteed," Netanyahu said at a memorial event for Zionist icon Zeev Jabotinsky in Jerusalem.

"But the majority also has rights, and the majority is crucial," Netanyahu added in comments that did not specifically address the contested 7b clause.

"The vast majority of the people want to ensure the Jewish character of our state for generations to come."

Samuel HABTAB (AFP)

"This combination of the right of the nation and the rights of the individual, this combination is the meaning of the phrase 'Jewish and democratic state' and Jabotinsky undoubtedly believed in this principle, sanctified it, fought for it -- and we continue it."

In comments that were blasted by several government lawmakers, President Rivlin has said that the cause on exclusionary housing “would essentially allow any community to establish residential communities that exclude Sephardic Jews, ultra-Orthodox people, Druze, LGBT people.”

“Is this what the Zionist vision means?” the former Likud politician questioned.

Many communities in Israel have selection committees that screen and approve new residents.

The nation-state law has been thrown around the Knesset in various iterations for several years, but was often shunted onto the back-burner over concerns that it would damage Israel's diplomatic efforts and public image.

However in May a watered-down version passed a first reading in the country's parliament, the Knesset.

New EU spat

Later on Thursday Netanyahu, who is also the foreign minister, ordered that the European Union's ambassador in Israel be summoned and reprimanded over his opposition to the nation-state law.

According to a report by Israel's Hadashot news, Ambassador Emanuele Giaufret has told a number of the bill's advocates that it would "harm Israel's status."

An unnamed Knesset member quoted the ambassador as saying that "the law moves Israel away from the accepted norms of democratic states," "smells of racism" and "harms the values that the State of Israel tries to protect."

In response, Netanyahu issued a stinging rebuke, referring also to the EU's support of a West Bank Bedouin village slated for demolition.

"It is not enough that the European Union funds NGOs that fight against the State of Israel and finance illegal construction, now it is interfering in Israeli legislation," he said in a statement.

"Apparently they do not understand that Israel is a sovereign state."

On Wednesday, Haaretz newspaper reported that Likud lawmakers were considering amending the text of the 7b clause to wording that does not actually prevent members of other ethnic groups moving into Jewish communities.

Likud lawmaker Sharren Haskel told i24NEWS on Thursday that the bill's critics were "blowing hot air".

She argued that the bill simply acknowledges the reality in Israel where most towns and communities are overwhelmingly dominated by various religious groups.

"Seven towns created by Israel in 2014 were exclusively for Bedouins, so if we come and say 'this doesn't exist' we are ignoring what is happening in Israel," she said in an interview.

The law's main backer Avi Dichter has said the bill is "a big step toward defining our identity, not only in the eyes of the world but primarily for ourselves, Israelis."

In addition to Rivlin's questioning of the law's spirit, the clause 7b clause has also been skewered by the attorney-general and the Knesset's top legal adviser.

MK Aida Touma-Sliman of the Joint Arab List party told i24NEWS that the bill "is ignoring democracy, is ignoring equality and only sticking to Jewishness. It is ignoring 20 percent of the citizens of the State of Israel."

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