JERUSALEM, Nov. 23 (JTA) — For the first time since the creation of Israel, a group of Israeli Arab Knesset members is launching a campaign against the Jewish character of the state.
Aimed at turning Israel into a “state of all its citizens,” the effort is using the same campaign slogan employed earlier this year by legislator Azmi Beshara, the first Israeli Arab to run for prime minister of Israel.
As part of the campaign, Knesset member Ahmed Tibi, introduced a bill earlier this month that would shatter one of the pillars of the Jewish state — the Law of Return.
Under that law, anyone with a Jewish grandparent has the right to immediate Israeli citizenship.
Tibi, who was previously Yasser Arafat’s adviser on Israeli affairs, wants to amend the law to allow unrestricted immigration to relatives of Israel’s Arab citizens.
The effort, which most political observers believe will go nowhere, comes at a time of increasing frustration among Israeli Arabs over their status in the Jewish state.
It also comes at a key point in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Among the issues to be addressed in the recently launched final-status negotiations is the right of return to Israeli lands of some 3.5 million Palestinian refugees.
Among those spearheading the campaign, Beshara recently drafted 42 amendments to a wide variety of existing laws, including statutes dealing with planning and construction, poultry codes and public sanitation regulations.
All of these laws have a common denominator, according to those involved in the campaign: They give special privileges to institutions representing the Jewish people, such as the Jewish Agency for Israel, the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish National Fund.
The campaigners complain that income tax regulations give the WZO special tax benefits.
Planning and construction codes, they add, give the Jewish Agency a special status in rural settlements that were created with agency funds, giving the agency the prerogative to select the inhabitants of those settlements.
Beshara’s amendments seek to remove all references to these organizations — and in the process eradicate their special status.
This status is “anchored in Zionist ideology, not in civil or state needs,” Beshara argues, adding that the state is using existing legislation to discriminate against Israel’s Arab minority.
The Arab Israeli initiative generated a blistering response from Sallai Meridor, the chairman of the Jewish Agency.
At a news conference he convened to denounce the move, Meridor urged Knesset members “to unite and fight any attempts to undermine the foundations of the State of Israel as a Jewish state.”
He also proposed an initiative of his own.
“The time has come to consider anchoring” the special character of the Jewish state in the Basic Laws, which serve Israel in lieu of a constitution, he said.
Defending the legal status quo — as well as the Star of David, the menorah and flag as the very symbols of the Jewish state — Meridor termed it a “great pity” that “an attack of this kind was opened by Arab Knesset members” just as Israel had launched negotiations with the Palestinian Authority aimed at reaching a final peace agreement.
Alluding to the possibility that a Palestinian state will be created as a result of those talks, Meridor said, “We must not allow a situation in which the Palestinians establish a national entity,” while on the other hand Israel is no longer “the state of the Jewish people.”
The Arab legislators’ initiatives have stirred anger across the political spectrum.
Knesset member Rehavam Ze’evi — a member of the far-right Moledet Party who has urged the expulsion of all Arabs from Israel — responded to Tibi’s bill by warning that if Israel’s Jewish majority fails to take action against such initiatives, in 20 years Israeli Arabs may create a parliamentary bloc that could pass such legislation.
On the left, Israeli’s dovish justice minister, Yossi Beilin, warned that such provocative initiatives could be counterproductive and could alienate even liberal Jews who support the Arab Israeli cause.
At a recent meeting with Arab lawyers, Beilin pointed to the example of Bir’im and Ikrit, two Arab villages in the Galilee whose residents were ordered to leave in 1948 for two weeks.
They were never allowed to return because the authorities feared setting a precedent.
The Barak government has shown signs that it would allow the return of those villagers.
But rather than express satisfaction with the new trend, Arab leaders have already suggested that there are an additional 200 villages that should receive similar treatment.
“Such statements deter even the best of liberals among us,” Beilin said. “It’s one thing if you speak about the return of two villages, who had suffered obvious injustice. It’s another thing to apply the same criteria to hundreds of villages.”
However, Arab politicians believe that their constituency expects them to play tough, and they are determined to go ahead with their parliamentary initiatives.
Among them are the members of the formerly Communist Hadash Party.
Their involvement in the initiative is noteworthy. Fifty-one years ago, Hadash, which is made up mainly of Arabs, led its Arab constituency to accept the legitimacy of the State of Israel.
Earlier this year, three members of Hadash, including Jewish legislator Tamar Gozansky, introduced a bill called the Basic Law: Equality for the Arab Population.
The bill does not refer to Israel as a Jewish state, but rather as a “multicultural democratic state.”
Such bills have set off alarms in the Knesset.
The Knesset’s legal adviser, Zvi Inbar, recently suggested that the Knesset presidium use its legal prerogative and censor all bills that undermine the “existence of the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people.’‘
The Knesset presidium, which includes the House speaker and his deputies, has not yet responded to this suggestion.
But if such action is taken, it appears likely that the Israeli Arab legislators will seek redress from the High Court of Justice. That could begin the next chapter in the contest between Jews and Arabs about what should be Israel’s true character.