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Political Analysis: The Jewish Nation State Law: Triumph of the Settlement Regime and the Abolition of the Right to Self-Determination of the Palestinians

By: Dr. Mohanad Mustafa* (Al-Zaytouna Centre– Exclusive).

The Knesset passed the “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People” ten years after it was first introduced on the Israeli parliament’s agenda. The law underwent several changes marked by controversies that would surface then disappear, preventing its enactment, then, in early July, Benjamin Netanyahu resolved to get the law passed once and for all (second and third reading) in the Knesset before summer recess on the eve of Jewish holidays.

Indeed, since Netanyahu announced in early July his insistence on passing the law, it was adopted on 19/7/2018 by a majority of 62 Knesset members (55 voted against and 2 abstained), as a basic law of a constitutional nature.[1] This law carries many legal, political and ideological implications for Israeli reality, on the one hand, and for the Israeli vision for the status of the Palestinians within the Green Line, and the Palestinian issue in general, on the other hand. In this paper, we will attempt to analyze the dimensions of the law through the following themes, while emphasizing that the law needs further study and research.


The Jewish nation state law was first introduced under the Kadima party-led government. Kadima was formed by Ariel Sharon after he left the Likud following the unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip. The law was first introduced in 1999 by Kadima MK Avi Dichter (a current Knesset member and former head of the Shin Bet security service). That bill contained many clauses that were similar in large part to those of the current law, which states, “The exercise of the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people,” “The Land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people,” and that “The State of Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people.”

The law also contained other clauses that seek to undermine the status of Arabic as an official language in the land, a status that the Arabic language had maintained since the British Mandate period in Palestine. The law states that “The Arabic language has a special status in the State” but no longer an official one. The various iterations of the nation state law, while maintaining the law’s central spirit, underwent several amendments every time a right-wing member of the Knesset would re-submit the bill, until the current version was adopted. The most important clauses of the current nation state law are as follows: [2]

1. The Land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, in which the State of Israel was established.

2. The State of Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, in which it realizes its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination.

3. The exercise of the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.

4. Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel.

5. Hebrew is the State language.

6. The Arabic language has a special status in the State.

7. The State shall be open for Jewish immigration, and for the ingathering of the Exiles.

8. The state shall strive to ensure the safety of members of the Jewish People and of its citizens, who are in trouble and in captivity, due to their Jewishness or due to their citizenship.

9. The State views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value, and shall act to encourage and promote its establishment and strengthening. [3]

These are the most important clauses of the law, which has undergone many amendments over a period of ten years until it reached the present formulation. The government was aiming to enact a more extreme law, with stronger nationalist tendencies, but because of contradictions in the government itself rather than with its opponents, this compromise formula was reached.

Why Democratic Equality is Not Present in the Law

Reading the law and the final version that was passed reveals the lack of any of the provisions that the opposition wanted to introduce. This is the Israeli opposition and not the Palestinian one, which we will tackle in the next section. Israeli parties did not oppose the law in principle, but have expressed reservations on some of its provisions, or because they believed that certain items are necessary and must be included. Their opposition is based on three considerations:

1. The absence of any reference to equality in the law: The opposition claimed that the law does not refer to the equality of citizens, rather it discriminates between them, which is in controversy to the “Declaration of Independence of Israel.” The opposition believes that it is possible to legislate a nation state law that enshrines the exclusivity of the self-determination of the Jewish people while emphasizing the principle of equality among citizens.

2. The absence of democracy: The opposition points out that the law does not mention that the political system in Israel is democratic. Therefore, it undermines the balance present in other basic laws between the Jewish character of the state and its democratic character, by granting privilege and supremacy to the Jewish character. To counter this claim, the government had struck off a clause in the draft law, which had asserted that if the Israeli judiciary faced an issue on which civil law, civil legislations or previous judicial decisions could not weigh, it could resort to Jewish religious law to adjudicate the case. Of course, this item has been completely removed to adjust the religious aspect of the law.

3. The abolition of the official status of the Arabic language: The opposition here was based on the consideration that an official status of the Arabic language does not mean recognition of national rights of the Arabs in Israel, and would not change the exclusivity of self-determination to the Jews in Israel. The opposition considered the abolition was due to the hostility for Arabic speakers, and called instead for maintaining the status of the Arabic language.

The Nation State Law at the Israeli Level: The Supremacy of the Settlements Regime Over the State Concept

What does the passing of the nation state law mean for the Israeli scene? The law reflects the shifts taking place in the Israeli scene, the triumph of the settlements polity over the state polity, and also the dominance of the religious and populist right. The latter has long implemented neoliberal economic policies that have improved the economy in recent decades, aided by the Israeli lefts abandoning several left-wing economy principles since the mid-1980s. These policies shrank the values of solidarity, social cohesion, and produced economic inequality in Israeli society. The populist right represented by Netanyahu rose to prominence and succeeded in building a Jewish—rather than an Israeli—identity, as a result of excluding the others and inciting against them, especially Palestinians inside the Green line, and by shrinking the democratic channels to challenge the Jewish character of the state within the bounds of Israeli citizenship.

Since the start of his most recent term in office, Netanyahu put the Palestinians inside the Green Line at the center of his policy and discourse, in order to introduce a new “enemy” for the his politics of identity and race that have driven his policies throughout his political career. Palestinians in Israel have been strongly present in recent years in Netanyahu’s fear mongering rhetoric. The right in Israel and its leaders, especially Benjamin Netanyahu, have persistently pursued, with and without occasion, a policy of invoking all kinds of events and excuses to incite against Palestinians in Israel. Thus, the law of Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People now defines specifically the limits and essence of citizenship and its limited ability to change the status of non-Jews, especially Palestinians in the Jewish state.

The new law in other words establishes the new republic of the populist right, just like when “Declaration of Independence of Israel” established the State of Israel under the leadership of David Ben-Gurion and his socialist camp. In addition, the nation-state law is contradictory to the Oslo Accords, which triggered the transition from the settler-colonial mindset to a statist thinking. Indeed, Israel had started moving towards resolving the conflict through a negotiated settlement, while taking advantage of the balance of power tipped in its favor to impose an unfair settlement on the Palestinians. It promoted state building while defining borders and citizenship (e.g., the enactment of two Basic Laws: “Human Dignity and Liberty,” and “Freedom of Occupation” in the early 1990s). It also attempted to regulate the Jewish-democratic character of the state by codifying it and adapting it theoretically and politically as a new reality, since the early 1990s, too.

The nation-state law represents a break from the logic of the state and marks the beginning of a legal transition to settler-colonial logic, captured by the gist of the law. The Zionist project did not end in 1948, but continues, where Israeli statehood is only an instrument in its fulfillment rather than its final purpose. Therefore, the debate on the nation-state law is not just about the rights of the Palestinians in Israel or the future of the Palestinian issue, but also about the contradiction between those who represent the notion of statehood and those who represent Zionist settler-colonialism.

The Nation State Law at the Palestinian Level: Threatening Collective Rights and the Palestinian Right to Self-Determination

The nation-state law bears major implications for Palestinians in the interior and in the Palestinian territories in 1967. It abolishes, first and foremost, the principle of self-determination for Palestinians within the Green Line, even in the minimal and limited interpretations of the concept of self-determination, which includes recognizing the collective rights of the Palestinians within the Green line. Thus, the law abolishes their political existence as a national group and treats them as individuals; not only practically speaking, but also constitutionally.

Since Netanyahu’s return to the office of prime minister, his government has initiated a vigorous campaign of legislation and political practices in all areas (especially education, culture, land, and planning) for the sole purpose of “repressing the political aspirations of the Arab community in Israel,” as Aluf Benn, political analyst and current editor-in-chief of Haaretz, puts it.[4] Just as Netanyahu aims to eliminate the Palestinian national movement, he seeks to eliminate the political aspirations of Palestinian society in Israel by striking every expression of Palestinian national identity. The culmination of this process was the outlawing of the Islamic movement headed by Sheikh Raed Salah and the prosecution and detention of its members and leaders.

In addition, the law carries the following implications:

First: It reduces the potential of citizenship to change the status of Palestinians within the Green Line. Since the 1990s, as a result of the economic, constitutional and political transformations undergone by Israel, the Palestinians have taken the advantages of the citizenship system to its maximum extent in the struggle against exclusionary and discriminatory policies against them. They improved their collective rights even when the state or the judiciary did not intend for that to happen.

Second: The abolition of the official character of the Arabic language and undermining the cultural value of the language in education and the public sphere is not a cosmetic measure. The status of the Arabic language in the Israeli public sphere, despite its official character, was never equal to the Hebrew language, but the abolition of its official character, although it was not present enough on the ground, is a blow to the collective rights of the Palestinians recognized by the state since the time of the British Mandate. It seeks to remove any collective national status for the Palestinians in Israel, beginning with linguistic rights. Theoretically, recognition of Arabic as an official language means the recognition of bilingualism in the state, which implies that there are two distinct national groups within the borders of a particular state. For example, Canada is a multicultural state based specifically on bilingualism, so the Jewish nation-state law seeks to abolish even this theoretical dimension.

Third: The nation-state law is the basis for attacking the judicial struggle of the Palestinians regarding their status in cases of a collective nature. For example, before the new law, it was possible to resort to the judiciary to impose the Arabic language on the public sphere, including public transport, government institutions, and the education system. This law now eliminates this possibility.

Fourth: The law conforms to Israeli policies seeking to Judaize the Palestinian space through its explicit declaration that the state encourages and supports Jewish settlement in the state. This is in line with the settler-colonial mindset we mentioned earlier. The word “Judaization” in Galilee and Negev is no longer an inappropriate word in the current Israeli political dictionary. In the Israeli discourse after the 1976 Land Day protests, this term had been replaced with terms such as: the development of the Galilee and the distribution of the population into different parts of the country. Although the law does not expressly refer to the prohibition of Arabs to live anywhere in the state, in practice, it declares that the state will establish Jewish-only towns only, and this leads to the reduction and strangulation of the Palestinian space, while preventing Palestinians from living elsewhere, if the law is taken towards its most profound interpretation.


The Jewish nation-state law carries great implications for the Israeli and Palestinian scenes. Apparently, the Israeli government does not intend to introduce any amendment to the law despite protests against it from various sources, and despite Druze protests against the law, who consider, for example, their service in the army as a lever of Druze rights.

Indeed, Netanyahu has announced that he would not introduce any amendment to the law, because for him this law represents a natural historical process in the Zionist project. Herzl had laid down the idea of the Jewish state, then Ben Gurion declared statehood through the Declaration of Independence, while Netanyahu entrenched this reality through the nation-state law. This law is also consistent with the Israeli demand for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” in any future peace settlement, which means recognizing the Zionist narrative and its “rights” in Palestine.

* General Director of the Mada al-Carmel in Haifa, and a university lecturer. He holds a PhD from the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Haifa. He has published many books, researches and academic studies in Arabic, English and Hebrew, as well as intellectual and political articles.

[1] Israeli laws are divided into two types, ordinary laws and basic laws. The latter have a constitutional dimension, and they are to compensate for the absence of a constitution in Israel. Basic Laws of Israel usually relate to the nature of the regime, government, army, rights and freedoms, and lately the “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People” was added. These laws were originally meant to be draft chapters of a future Israeli constitution, they are used on a daily basis by the courts as a formal constitution.
[2] Basic Laws, site of The Knesset,
[3] Inside the government, this article was controversial. Its original wording contained request to establish residential areas exclusively for Jews, but then it was amended due to the objection of the government legal counselor.
[4] Haaretz newspaper, 13/10/2010,


Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, 14/8/2018