A day after a government vote on a contentious bill to define Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people disintegrated into a shouting match between party leaders, the coalition decided Monday to postpone the Knesset-wide vote planned for Wednesday.
Meir Sheetrit, the faction chairman for Justice Minister Tzipi Livni's Hatnua party, proposed that the vote on the so-called nationality bill be delayed by a week so that a compromise draft can be produced. Yisrael Beiteinu faction leader Robert Ilatov also sought to postpone the vote by a week, and the Bayhit Yehudi faction head Aleyet Shaked agreed.
Livni warned Monday that the bill in its current form would not pass, and trying to force it could destroy the coalition. The bill, if passed, would result in a new basic law defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Its critics, who include the attorney general, claim that the bill is redundant at best and anti-democratic and discriminatory at worst.
Trying to keep his coalition alive, a beleaguered Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is drafting a new watered-down version of the bill, after two of the main factions of the coalition - Livni's Hatnua and Finance Minister Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid - announced Sunday night that they would not support it.
"I'm determined to pass the bill, with or without agreement," Netanyahu said of the Nationality Law during the weekly Likud faction meeting. "I'm willing to give discussion a chance, it's better, but I'm determined to pass the law."
"I think the Nationality Law is very important to securing the future of the people of Israel in the land of Israel and the State of Israel," he continued.
"The bill and the principles I'm promoting give expression to the fact the State of Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, and only theirs, alongside safeguarding the personal rights of each and every Israeli citizen."
Since the end of the stormy cabinet meeting on the bill Sunday, frantic negotiations got underway almost immediately afterward to find a compromise draft that would not divide the coalition and thereby avert one of the biggest crises of the current government.
The extreme wording of the draft formulated by coalition chairman Ze'ev Elkin, which touches on the most explosive issues, led to the turbulent government meeting, raised voices, and, according to coalition officials, even to a 48-hour period in which the very survival of the government was in question.
Livni and Lapid have accused Netanyahu of promoting a bill that turns some of the population into second-class citizens and blatantly attacks democracy. Livni made it clear in an interview to Ynet on Monday morning that the bill would not pass a Knesset vote.
"If the prime minister wants to anchor the position of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, it can be done," she said. "But to take a radical bill that is contrary to the declaration of independence, which harms democracy and would subject the Israeli population to a theocracy - will not happen."
"I think this bill harms Zionism and the State of Israel," Livni continued. "The agreement with the prime minister was that we would we first agree to the principles. I have heard from his people and from Likud members that he insists on passing the law on the same day."
Livni stressed that, "this bill will not pass because we are not ready and I will not be a fig leaf for something so problematic. And if it is brought up on Wednesday we will not let it pass and we will not compromise on the wording."
She also warned that the row over the bill could shatter the coalition. Allowing a free vote, Likud sources have made clear, is not on the table because difficulty in attaining a majority would doom the bill to failure.
"It is very possible that we will vote against the prime minister, who will have to decide whether to fire ministers and break up his coalition over a law that aims to diminish Israel as a Jewish and democratic state," she said. "If he wants to go to elections - no problem."
Lapid also had choice words against the bill and those who promote it. "This is the old type of politics that tries to take us backwards, to political deal-making, to blackmail, to government corruption, and to selling the country to the primaries and vote contractors. They want elections while the streets are burning and don't want to do their jobs," he accused.
"So who do they punish? The young couples and the fighters who returned from Operation Protective Edge. We can reduce housing prices. We insist that we clean house. This conduct cannot continue," he added.
"I call on the prime minister to act responsibly. We can still repair the damage and pass the budget without causing more and more rifts throughout the country. Most of all, we can go back to leading Israeli citizens to their benefit and not at their expense," Lapid concluded.
Meanwhile, the opposition is gleefully watching the chaos in the coalition – and mounting more hurdles against the bill's passage. If the bill is brought to a preliminary reading, the coalition will have to campaign to win over MKs and ministers, an especially difficult proposition given the current formulation of the draft.
Opposition leader and Labor chairman Isaac Herzog also criticized the prime minister, saying that the bill only served Netanyahu's own ends and not the state.
"Netanyahu has personally decided to sacrifice the interests of the nation, of security, and of society on the altar of his personal will to conquer the Likud and go to elections," he said.
"There is no need for a nationality bill. I think that Zionism is built day by day, and repeat: the bill is racist and discriminatory. There's no dialogue with the other parties. We have a frightened prime minister who is losing his self-confidence and sending a message to his people that he does not believe in their national fortitude."
He called on Livni and Lapid to quit the government. "The country is stuck with Bibi. This government has been transitional from the day it was founded, which you participated in. You can repair the damage by joining us in the Labor Party to become an alternative and form the next government that can save this country."
Sources in Yesh Atid and Hatnua have been clear that they will not balk at breaking up the coalition over the issue, thereby forcing the country to hold new elections.
"If you drag us into it, we are not afraid of an election," the sources said. "We will not vote against our conscience for a racist bill that harms minorities".
Dr. Mohammed Mustafa of Haifa University told Ynet that the bill was a dangerous attempt to limit Israeli Arabs' citizenship. "We do not need this law to enshrine the state's Jewish character," he claimed. "Its Jewish character has been enshrined in a long series of laws, and also in basic laws, which emphasize that Israel is a Jewish and democratic state. This bill is another erosion of Israel's democratic aspects and its goal is to limit the Arab population's citizenship as well as distort their rights."
He added that the new bill is a new step in the relationship between the state and its Arab citizens. "The politicians who attempt to pass the bill preach about Israel being the only democracy in the midst of nations that legislate according to Sharia law. Is there a difference between this bill and the laws of Arab countries who base their legislation on scripture? They should not sermonize about democracy and its meaning."
The efforts to pass the bill have once against highlighted Israeli Arabs' claims of discrimination and deprivation.
A letter by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel listed some tangible examples it says illustrate how the bill could hurt the Arab population. Among other things, it said the law promotes racial discrimination in housing and changes the special status of Arabic as a national language. While the government approved the entire bill, the language issue would likely be dropped moving ahead due to a compromise with coalition partners.
"The bill seeks to nullify the understanding of democracy laid out in Israel's definition," said the letter by ACRI's lawyers. They noted that the bill makes no reference to national equality rights. "The possible consequences are of the utmost seriousness, and could constitute a threat to the human rights of all citizens."
The bill has also drawn fire from judicial experts. Writing for Ynet over the weekend, former justice minister Daniel Friedmann called the law an "unnecessary declaration (that) will not add a thing and will not solve a thing."
Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein said there were fundamental difficulties in the legislation that he could not endorse as the chief legal counselor to the government.
Livni on Saturday published a Facebook post lashing out at the bill as dangerous and anti-Zionist. She wrote that she would "defend the values of the charter of Israel as they were established during the declaration of independence and will not lend hand to harm them."
Itay Blumenthal and Attila Somfalvi also contibuted to this report.