Naftali Bennett rebuffs US over 'Jewish state' law

The Telegraph: A war of words has erupted between Israel and its closet ally, the United States, after a leading right-wing politician told Washington to mind its own business over a highly contentious bill to declare the country a Jewish state while stripping Arabs of national rights.

The rebuff was delivered by Naftali Bennett, the economy minister and leader of the nationalist Jewish Home party, after the US State Department suggested the bill - approved by the cabinet on Sunday - undermined Israel's democratic credentials.

"Israel is a Jewish and democratic state and all its citizens should enjoy equal rights. We expect Israel to stick to its democratic principles," said Jeff Rathke, a state department spokesman.

That drew a quick riposte from Mr Bennett, who told Israel Radio: "I say to the Americans: we will manage the matters of the state of Israel ourselves."

The exchange occurred as bitter divisions over the proposed nation-state law threatened to tear apart the rickety coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, amid rising speculation about a possible early general election.

A scheduled vote on the bill in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, was postponed from Tuesday until next week in an effort to find a compromise after two prominent centrists, Tzipi Livni, the justice minister, and Yair Lapid, the finance minister, said they would quit the government - effectively collapsing the coalition - if the legislation passed in its current form.

The bill approved in Sunday's bitterly divisive cabinet meeting would define Israel as "the nation-state of the Jewish people", enshrine Jewish law as the basis of the legal system and relegate Arabic from its current status as an official language.

Opponents say it elevates Israel's Jewish character at the expense of its status as a democracy, set out in the country's 1948 declaration of independence.

Ms Livni, leader of the centrist Hatnua party - who had a heated exchange with Mr Netanayahu during the cabinet meeting - called the bill "jingoistic, divisive and [driven by] a group of extremists" at a conference in Sderot on Tuesday.

The liberal Haaretz newspaper was equally scathing, warning that it would "remove the State of Israel from the community of democratic nations, and give it a place of honor instead beside those dark regimes in which minorities are persecuted".

Mr Netanyahu, who supported a more hardline form of the legislation approved by Ze'ev Elkin, a Right-wing MP from his Likud party, said the change was necessary because of challenges - from Palestinians and others - to Israel's status a Jewish state.

Critics, however, warn that the bill encourages racism at a time when tensions are already running high between Israel's Jews and its Arab minority, who make up 20 per cent of the population.

Following widespread reports of a Jewish backlash after a recent spate of deadly Palestinian attacks, Rueven Rivlin, the country's president, withdrew an invitation to Amir Benayoun, a popular Jewish singer, to perform at a forthcoming anniversary event marking the expulsion of Jews from Arab countries in 1948, over a new song he wrote that expresses anti-Arab sentiments.

In the song, Ahmed Loves Israel, Benayoun sings: "Salam aleikum, my name is Ahmed, I live in Jerusalem. I study at the university. Who better than me enjoys both worlds. Today I'm moderate and all smiles like a cherub. Send a Jew to hell. It's true I'm scum, an ingrate, but I'm not to blame, I wasn't raised on love. When you turn your back on me, I'll shoot you in the back or stick an axe in you." .

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