The Israeli Cabinet's decision Sunday to approve a bill that would bar Israeli Arabs from buying homes in Jewish communities built on state-owned land enraged many of the nation's commentators, who denounced it as racist and inflammatory. Ha'aretz noted that 90 percent of Israeli land is owned by the state. It added, "Today, Arabs constitute more than 18 percent of Israel's population, but Arab municipalities have jurisdiction over only 2.5 percent of Israel's lands." Yediot Ahronot dismissed the proposal as "anti-democratic" and called the Cabinet's actions "very shameful." Ha'aretz said, "This bill, if enacted, would constitute a blatant declaration of the effective collapse of Israeli democracy."
In a 17-2 vote, the Cabinet backed a proposal from a National Religious Party member that would overturn a March 2000 Israeli Supreme Court ruling declaring there could be no discrimination between Jews and Arabs in the distribution of state lands, even if the land allocation is managed by the Jewish Agency. According to the Jordan Times, "Sunday's decision effectively overturns the supreme court ruling by allowing the Jewish Agency to allocate land in accordance with its goals, that is, to establish exclusively Jewish communities." The bill will come before parliament after the summer break. If it is approved by the Knesset, there will inevitably be an appeal to the Supreme Court.
Hatzofeh defended the bill: "While there is no doubt that Israeli Arabs must be treated with all the rules of Jewish morality and justice and that their standard of living must be improved, any knowledgeable person knows that mixing the populations together will only deepen the tension between Israeli Arabs and the Jewish population, especially at this time, in which Israeli Arabs, most of them, identify with the acts of Palestinian terror."
Writing in Ma'ariv, the bill's sponsor, MK Rabbi Haim Druckman, said the Cabinet's decision represented "one of the finest hours of the Sharon government. … It has returned color to the cheeks of Zionism, which had paled somewhat in recent times." Ma'ariv also published a counterpoint op-ed by leftist MK Yossi Sarid, who said the bill's supporters were worse than the European nationalists who try to keep foreigners out of their countries: "Arab-Israelis are not our guests here. They are citizens, with equal rights, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. Even the worst of the European neo-fascist movements would never try to bar citizens of their own country from their communities." (Translations from Ma'ariv courtesy of the Lebanon Daily Star's "Israeli Press Review.")
Several papers noted that only one Labor member of the coalition Cabinet voted against the proposal. Britain's Independent said the others "either left the chamber or muttered their reservations." Ha'aretz reported that Labor's failure to fight the measure "sparked outrage among the Arab public and deepened the crisis within the party." It was skeptical about the Labor leader's claim that rightist ministers waited until Labor members left the meeting before calling the vote, pointing out that the agenda had been distributed in advance and that no attempt was made to shelve the discussion. The Labor Party pledged to vote against the bill when it reaches the Knesset.
The Independent pointed out that the bill's timing is terrible: "Israel is struggling to convince a sceptical world it is not a racist state, that in the conflict with the Palestinians it has right on its side. The bill's opponents fear that this measure will give Israel's enemies fresh ammunition in the public relations war."