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Nov 23, 2:38 PM EST

Israeli Cabinet touches off furor by approving bill that defines country as Jewish state


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JERUSALEM (AP) -- In a move likely to further inflame tensions with Israel's Arab citizens, the Israeli Cabinet on Sunday approved a bill to legally define the country as the nation-state of the Jewish people.

The decision, which set off a stormy debate that could bring down Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's brittle coalition government, followed weeks of deadly Arab-Jewish violence and was denounced by critics as damaging to the country's democratic character and poorly timed at such a combustible moment.

It now heads toward a full parliamentary vote on Wednesday.

Israel has always defined itself as the "Jewish state" - a term that was contained in the country's declaration of independence in 1948. The new law seeks to codify that status as a "Basic Law," Israel's de facto constitution.

While many critics derided the measure as unnecessary, Netanyahu told his Cabinet the bill is a response to Israel's Arab critics both inside and outside Israel who question the country's right to exist.

Netanyahu has long demanded that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish homeland as a condition of any peace deal. Both the Palestinians and their Arab Israeli brethren say such acceptance would harm the rights of Israel's more than 1.5 million Arab citizens.

The bill calls not only for recognizing Israel's Jewish character but for institutionalizing Jewish law as an inspiration for legislation and dropping Arabic as an official language.

Netanyahu insisted that Israel would be both Jewish and democratic.

"There are those who would like the democratic to prevail over the Jewish and there are those who would like the Jewish to prevail over the democratic," he said. "And in the principles of the law that I will submit today both of these values are equal and both must be considered to the same degree."

Israel is in the midst of its worst sustained bout of violence in nearly a decade. Eleven Israelis have been killed in Palestinian attacks over the past month, including five people who were killed with guns and meat cleavers in a bloody assault on a Jerusalem synagogue last week.

Jewish nationalists in Netanyahu's coalition had pushed hard for the bill. The two centrist parties in the Cabinet, Yesh Atid and Hatnua, provided the only opposition in the 14-6 vote.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid, head of Yesh Atid, called it a "terrible" piece of legislation meant to appease hard-liners ahead of primaries in Netanyahu's hawkish Likud Party.

Health Minister Yael German, another Yesh Atid member, said the party would support a law only if it emphasized Israel's Jewish and democratic nature equally.

"This bill does not preserve that value. It will be a mark of shame for the parliament to pass such a law," she said.

A vote against the bill in parliament by the party could break up the coalition and even trigger new elections. Yesh Atid is the second-largest faction in parliament and could rob Netanyahu of his majority.

In a statement, Israel's attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, said he had serious doubts about the legality of the bill's language because it impinges on Israel's democratic character.

The measure could still be delayed or watered down before it is put to a vote in parliament.

Ahmad Tibi, a leading Arab lawmaker, denounced the bill as an attack on Arab natives of the country and called on the world to offer them protection. Dov Khenin, leader of the mixed Jewish-Arab Hadash party, accused Netanyahu of "pouring fuel into the bonfire of hate."

Israeli Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of the population, have long complained of discrimination and second-class status.

Last week, the mayor of the southern city of Ashkelon sparked an uproar by banning Arab construction laborers from working in Israeli preschools on security grounds. The mayor, Itamar Shimoni, reversed his decision on Sunday but said the children would be moved to other locations while construction proceeded.

Though citizens of Israel, the country's Arabs often identify with Palestinians in the West Bank, and their loyalty to the state if often questioned by Jews.

On Sunday, Israel's Shin Bet security service said it arrested a 22-year-old Israeli Arab who had returned from Syria after trying to join the Islamic State extremist group. Israel believes that several dozen Arabs have left the country to join IS in Syria.

The deadly unrest in recent weeks has centered on Jerusalem's most sensitive holy site, a hilltop compound revered by Jews and Muslims. Israeli restrictions on Muslim access to the site, which Israel says are a necessary security measure, have heightened tensions.

The spate of attacks has left many people on both sides on edge. Early Sunday, a Palestinian family in the West Bank said its home had been torched in an attack blamed on Jewish settlers. The fire damaged one room, and Hebrew slogans were scrawled on the house.

In the Gaza Strip, the Israeli army shot and killed a 32-year-old man who approached the border with Israel. Palestinians said the man had been hunting birds, a hobby common among Palestinians.

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