Analysis: Why Israel's Nation-State Law is Not Only Anti-Democratic But Also Anti-Peace

Israel’s new Nation-State Law is not only anti-democratic. It is also anti-peace. It hinders not only peace between Jews and non-Jews in Israel, but it also severely hampers prospects for future peace between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors.

Instead of echoing Israel’s Declaration of Independence by championing the pursuit of peace as a Jewish value of the Jewish state, the Nation-State Law asserts an aggressive, uncompromising, zero-sum attitude toward Israel’s relations with the Palestinians. The law’s exclusionary content and tone is directed at non-Jewish citizens of the state, but is understandably perceived by non-Israeli Palestinians as well as a law that as excludes them from a relationship based on equality with Israel.

The law stipulates that “the right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” This formulation justifiably excludes Palestinian statehood within sovereign Israel, but when legislated by a Knesset that consistently pushes the envelope toward de-jure annexation of the West Bank, it can justifiably be interpreted as an effort to outlaw a Palestinian state.

By stating that “Jerusalem, complete and united, is the capital of Israel,” the law categorically excludes the prospect of East Jerusalem becoming the capital of the future Palestinian state.

The mention of a “complete and united” Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has consequences that reach far beyond declarative and symbolic. By outlawing de-facto the possibility of a compromise agreement over Jerusalem, the Knesset has added yet another legislative roadblock on the way to peace. Any viable agreement between the leaders of Israel and the Palestinians would have to include a compromise over Jerusalem, granting Palestinians sovereignty in East Jerusalem and allowing them to have East Jerusalem recognized as their capital. This law requires special Basic Law legislation to reverse this clause.

Then there is the issue of settlement. The law stipulates that “the state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation.” But it does not limit settlement to the lines of sovereign Israel. By doing so, the law gives a further push to annexationist trends that characterize this government’s actions and legislation. Worse, it gives further legal coverage to the settlers’ insatiable appetite for expansion with the stated goal of denying a future Palestinian state. Whenever establishing another hilltop outpost in the West Bank, unauthorized by the government, settlers could point to the law and argue that this Basic (constitutional) Law trumps any legal technicality complicating the ultimate goal of settling the land.

Another reason for this law being blatantly anti-peace has to do with the insistence by Israeli leaders on a Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state as part of any peace deal. In the past, some were willing to defer such a recognition to the end of the negotiating process. Benjamin Netanyahu demanded it on the front end, as a first step in talks, if not as an actual precondition.

Palestinian leaders have refused to grant Israel such an upfront concession. The chief reason was solidarity with their brethren, Palestinian citizens of the state of Israel. The PLO recognized that if, as the official leadership of the Palestinian people, it recognized Israel as a Jewish state, it would hinder the ability of Israel’s Palestinian minority to negotiate the character of the state with Israel’s Jewish majority.

The PLO already recognized in 1993 “the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security,” and could live with a “soft” recognition of Israel’s character as a Jewish state. The Nation-State Law’s definition of Israel as a Jewish state however, is so exclusionary, and so defiantly asserts the Zionist narrative, that the Palestinian leadership would find it hard -- if not impossible -- to endorse.

Lastly, the new law hinders peace because it is (correctly) perceived by Palestinians as undemocratic. In a recent poll, Palestinian peace-skeptics were asked about supporting a possible two-state peace deal with Israel and offered incentives (“sweeteners”) to adopt a more welcoming attitude. A considerable percentage of these skeptics (more than one-fifth) said they would change their minds and support such an agreement if it “states that the state of Israel will have a democratic political system whereby Israeli law formally guarantees equality of Arab Israeli citizens, who will have equal rights (to) Israeli Jews by law.”

The Nation-State Law demonstrates that peace and democracy are intertwined. Unfortunately, Israel’s government seems increasingly insistent on denying both from the public it was elected to serve.