The European Commission has expressed concern, but no clear condemnation, of a controversial “nation-state” law passed by the Parliament of Israel. The law states that only Jews have the right of self-determination in the country and strips Arabic of the status of an official language.
This new law is under fire over the accusation that it is racist and verging on apartheid for the Arab minority. Israel’s Arabs represent 20% of the population, that is around 1.8 million people. Arabs denounce what they call increasingly oppressive policies by Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government.
The EU ambassador to Israel was reprimanded by the country’s authorities when he criticised the draft of the law.
On Thursday (19 July), journalists in Brussels asked repeatedly at the midday press briefing where the Commission stood concerning the new law.
“We are concerned, we have voiced our concerns with full respect regarding Israel’s sovereignty and will continue to engage with Israeli authorities and keep reminding them that we stand in favour of a two-state solution,” the Commission’s spokesperson Maja Kocijancic said.
Asked if the “nation-state” law was one of the obstacles to a peaceful two-state solution, she answered that it “certainly further complicates the path that we would like to see, the path towards the two-state solution.”
Journalists also inquired whether or not the Commission was going to publish a statement on the issue. “We communicate with Israeli authorities using statements, Council conclusions and other classical diplomatic means to make our positions clear,” Kocijancic answered, confirming that no specific statement would be issued for the time being.
However, “basic principles when it comes to the respect of minorities need to be ensured,” she added.
The “nation-state” law, backed by the right-wing government, passed by a vote of 62-55 and two abstentions in the 120-member parliament after months of a political tug of war. Some Arab lawmakers shouted and ripped up papers after the vote.
“This is a defining moment in the annals of Zionism and the history of the state of Israel,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Knesset after the vote.
Largely symbolic, the law was enacted just after the 70th anniversary of the state of Israel. It stipulates that “Israel is the historic homeland of the Jewish people and they have an exclusive right to national self-determination in it”.
The bill also strips Arabic of its status as an official language alongside Hebrew, downgrading it to a “special status” that enables its continued use within Israeli institutions.
Clauses that were dropped in last-minute political wrangling – and after objections by Israel’s president and attorney-general – would have enshrined in law the establishment of Jewish-only communities, and instructed courts to rule according to Jewish ritual law when there were no relevant legal precedents.
Instead, a more vaguely-worded version was approved, which says: “The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment.”
Even after the changes, critics said the new law will deepen a sense of alienation within the Arab minority.
“I announce with shock and sorrow the death of democracy,” Ahmed Tibi, an Arab lawmaker, told reporters.
Netanyahu has defended the law. “We will keep ensuring civil rights in Israel’s democracy but the majority also has rights and the majority decides,” he said last week.
“An absolute majority wants to ensure our state’s Jewish character for generations to come.”