JERUSALEM — The Israeli Cabinet on Sunday approved draft legislation that emphasized Israel’s Jewish character above its democratic nature in a move that critics said could undermine the fragile relationship with the country’s Arab minority at a time of heightened tensions.
The promotion of a nationality law has long stirred fierce debate in Israel, where opponents fear that any legislation giving preeminence to Israel’s Jewishness could lead to an internal rift as well as damage Israel’s relations with Jews in other countries and with the country’s international allies.
The vote Sunday also highlighted political fissures within the governing coalition amid increasing talk of early elections. The bill, a proposal for a basic law titled “Israel, the Nation-State of the Jewish People,” passed 14 to 6, with two centrist coalition parties opposing it. Parliament still has to approve the bill for it to become law.
Answering critics who have questioned why such legislation is necessary, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the push for the declaration.
“There are many who are challenging Israel’s character as the national state of the Jewish people,” he said before the Cabinet vote. “The Palestinians refuse to recognize this, and there is also opposition from within.”
He added, “There are those — including those who deny our national rights — who would like to establish autonomy in the Galilee and the Negev,” referring to areas of Israel with large concentrations of Arab citizens, who make up more than 20 percent of the population.
Netanyahu is expected to amend the draft before any final reading in Parliament to ensure, as he put it, the principle of “equal individual rights for every citizen.”
In a separate development, Netanyahu said Sunday he was pushing for new legislation to revoke the rights of residents who “participate in terrorism or incitement against the state of Israel,” including the throwing of stones and firebombs.
Clearly referring to Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, he said those who attack Israel, and their families, should not enjoy welfare benefits.
In the West Bank village of Khirbet Abu Fallah, a Palestinian house was burned overnight in what the owners said was an attack by extremist Jewish settlers. The occupants, a woman and her three children, escaped unharmed. Hebrew graffiti was found at the site. The Israeli police said they were investigating.
Separately, an Israeli border police officer was charged with manslaughter on Sunday in a case involving the fatal shooting of two Palestinian teenagers during a West Bank protest in May. The Justice Ministry said evidence suggested that the officer had deliberately fired a live bullet at the body of one of the teenagers, despite orders to use only rubber-coated bullets.
And in Gaza, a Palestinian man was killed by Israeli army fire as he approached the border fence. Identified as Muhammad Fadel Halawa, he was the first such fatality since an August cease-fire ended 50 days of fighting between Israel and Hamas, the Islamic militant group that dominates Gaza.
A Gaza Health Ministry official described the man as a farmer and said he had been working his land when he was shot in the back.
A spokesman for the Israeli military said two Palestinians had approached the border fence and ignored warnings to move back, so soldiers fired first in the air and then at their lower bodies, hitting one of the Palestinians.
Commenting on the proposed nationality law, Ahmed Tibi, a veteran Arab member of the Israeli Parliament, said there had long been tension surrounding the term “Jewish democracy,” as Israel defines itself.
Speaking by telephone from New York, where he was attending a conference at the United Nations, Tibi said the proposed legislation “confirms that the Jewish and democratic state is a fiction.”
He described Israel instead as a “Judocracy” that would never recognize the collective rights of minorities who have long suffered discrimination.
Adding to the rancor surrounding the vote, many here saw it as a cynical political maneuver intended by Netanyahu to buy the loyalty of hard-line members of his conservative Likud Party ahead of party primaries.
Among other changes, the initial drafts promoted as private initiatives by right-wing parliamentarians and approved Sunday shifted Arabic from an official language to one with a “special status.”
In what appeared to be a political deal, Netanyahu promised government support for the hard-line versions of the bill in a first reading in Parliament later this week on the condition that the law would be moderated before any final approval.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence of 1948 enshrines the “right of the Jewish people to be a nation, as all other nations, in its own Sovereign State.” The declaration also pledges to “uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed, or sex.”
Yair Lapid — the minister of finance and the leader of Yesh Atid, one of the coalition parties that opposed the preliminary bill — said he had spoken Sunday with the family of Zidan Saif, a Druse police officer who was killed while protecting Jewish worshipers from two Palestinians who attacked a Jerusalem synagogue with butchers’ knives and a gun last week.
“What will we say to them?” Lapid asked. “That the deceased is a second-class citizen in the state of Israel because there are primaries in the Likud?”