A Century after Balfour: Israel’s Knesset Wants All of Palestine

The Israeli Knesset opened its winter session on October 23, almost a full century after the Balfour Declaration promised the Jews a national home in Palestine. Several legislative initiatives that are reported to have been introduced or placed in the process of becoming law could have important implications for Israel’s relations with the Palestinians and the makeup of the Israeli government. They also may well draw a response from the United States government. Legislation being considered includes legal measures to facilitate the eventual annexation of occupied Palestinian territory, expansion of the Jerusalem municipality’s borders with further marginalization of its Palestinian residents, enshrining the exclusivity of Judaism in the laws of the state, manipulating electoral politics to benefit right-wing parties, and continuing to disenfranchise nongovernmental organizations and dissenting opinions. All these legislative steps indicate a deliberate and unmistakable trend toward authoritarianism and right-wing domination.


Since the election of Donald Trump (who is viewed favorably in only two countries worldwide, Russia and Israel), right-wing Israeli lawmakers have viewed his administration as a window of opportunity during which they could take significant steps to alter realities on the ground irreversibly, thereby tightening Israel’s grip on occupied Palestinian territory. Legal measures in the direction of annexation are a key part of exploiting the Trump window.

Earlier this year, the Knesset passed a law “legalizing” certain Israeli settlement outposts under Israeli law. Of course, these settlements remain illegal under international law, like all settlements in occupied Palestinian territory. Previously, Israeli settlement outposts that were built illegally were considered illegal under Israeli law as well. The Knesset bill passed in February, however, retroactively legalizes thousands of homes in outposts. Miri Regev, a high-ranking Likud Party member and a minister in the Israeli government, said at the time, “This is the first step towards complete regulation, namely, applying Israeli sovereignty over Judea and Samaria.”

Another bill, which passed a preliminary reading in June, would allow Israeli settlers to take legal claims to the same court system as citizens inside Israel. There has always been a two-tiered system of justice for Israeli settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank, with the former governed by Israeli civil courts while the latter restricted to Israeli military courts. Israeli settlers, however, were unable to take certain claims to administrative courts, as other Israelis could, since the occupied territory was outside the courts’ legal jurisdiction; instead, settlers were forced to bring claims to the High Court of Justice where they might receive less favorable rulings. This new bill would change that and take one more step toward applying Israeli law to the occupied territory—another step down the path of annexation.

Other moves in this direction could come in the form of the “Greater Jerusalem” bill, which gained Netanyahu’s public support in early October. This bill would incorporate massive and sprawling settlements into the municipality of Jerusalem, like the largest settlement in the West Bank, Maale Adumim along with Givat Ze’ev, Beitar Illit and the Etzion bloc. By including these massive settlements into the municipality of Jerusalem, Israel would enhance the connection between the city and these settlements—which are well outside the municipality’s boundaries today and cut deep into occupied territory. Just as important, this step would also chart a path to including these settlements within a legal web that would add additional obstacles to the drawing of borders, if negotiations were ever to get that far.

Indeed, in 1980, the Israeli Knesset passed what became known as the Jerusalem Law, which stated that the municipality of Jerusalem, including its eastern occupied half, was the undivided capital of Israel. It also stipulated that no part of the city could be transferred to another authority. While the law was largely symbolic, it became a “basic law,” which in Israel stipulates that amending it would require votes from 80 members of the Knesset, giving only 41 members blocking ability. Should the current Greater Jerusalem bill pass, therefore, settlements like Maale Adumim and the Etzion bloc would move toward being included above this high bar—that is, any future possibility of reconsidering their legal status as part of Jerusalem would be very difficult to do.

Israeli officials have said that the United States has pressured them not to move forward with this bill and that Washington is under the impression that this would be a step toward annexation. The Likud Party chair, David Bitan, stated that, “There is American pressure that claims this is about annexation and that this could interfere with the peace process.” He continued that “The prime minister doesn’t think this is about annexation. I don’t think so either. We have to take the time to clarify matters to the Americans. Therefore, if the bill passes in a week, or in a month, it’s less problematic.” Israeli ministers, however, have made their intentions perfectly clear: this legislation is about annexation.

Opposition to the bill may also come from some unexpected sources. Since the inclusion of these settlements would alter the demographics among Israeli Jews in the municipality, the ultra-orthodox, who have a strong presence in Jerusalem and its municipal politics, would no longer have the sway they enjoy today if the more religiously mixed settlements are brought into the municipality’s electorate. As important players in the Israeli government’s coalition, addressing this concern of theirs will likely be necessary to building enough support to ultimately pass the law.

Demographic Engineering

Another legislative initiative in the Knesset also focuses on altering the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem. Instead of bringing additional Israeli settlements in, however, it would move Palestinian neighborhoods out in order to decrease the number of Arabs in Jerusalem. The bill, put forward by Israel’s Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze’ev Elkin, would create a separate municipal entity for Palestinian neighborhoods that are now inside the Jerusalem municipality but behind Israel’s separation wall. Places like al-Walaja, Kufr Arab, and the Shuafat Refugee Camp would be impacted.

These Palestinian localities have been part of the expanded municipality of Jerusalem for decades, but since Israel built the massive separation barrier, they have been cut off from both people and services—leaving them in a sort of no-man’s land. The legislation in the Knesset is framed as an attempt to resolve this problem, but in reality, it is part of an ongoing effort to alter the demographics of the municipality of Jerusalem. If excised from the municipal boundaries, the residents of Jerusalem in these localities will lose not only the opportunity to vote in municipal elections but also, in all likelihood, any limited access they have had to the outside world. To be sure, the primary concern for the Israeli government is how these areas contribute to the demographics of the municipality. At present, children of families consisting of Palestinian residents of Jerusalem with spouses from the West Bank are eligible for residency in Jerusalem; for Israelis, this is a problem which, in the past, they have termed a “demographic spillover.” Sooner or later, Israel is likely to attempt to pass off these areas to the Palestinian Authority.

Demographic reconfigurations feature prominently in another proposed law that has been in the works since 2011. This so-called Nation State bill aims to clarify, legally, the ethnic-religious nature of the state. While Israel’s declaration of independence—which has no legal standing—discussed equal rights, the laws of the state clearly privileged one group over others. For these reasons, Israel’s claims to being both Jewish and democratic are disproved by the actual passage, interpretation, and execution of its laws. While the Nation State bill attempts to articulate a balance between the state’s ethnic identity and its purported democratic aspirations, various drafts of the law have been debated but the consensus versions would elevate the state’s Jewish identity over its democratic aspirations in one form or another. This would explicitly codify a principle into basic law that has been inferable from other laws since the establishment of the state: that it privileges one group of citizens and residents over others because of their identity, and that it reserves the right to maintain this system of privilege. In practical terms, establishing this exclusionary principle as law would empower the state to take steps into the future to defend Jewish collective interests at the expense of non-Jewish citizens. This could manifest itself in many ways, but the most obvious relates to demographics. Should non-Jews in Israel become a larger minority or even a majority one day, this law would serve as the legal foundation for efforts to keep them disenfranchised and marginalized.

Playing Politics

While demographics are being counted, shifted, and shaped by laws, so too are governing coalitions and political parties. In previous years, the electoral threshold that political parties had to pass to qualify for Knesset seats was 2 percent. Such a rule prevented smaller parties from taking seats in what was already a multiparty parliament. Ahead of the last election, this threshold was raised to 3.25 percent in a move widely seen as an attempt to eliminate several smaller—and primarily Arab—parties. The anti-Arab ultranationalist head of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party (who is also Israel’s defense minister), Avigdor Lieberman, had championed this change. But in many ways, it backfired when the several Arab parties banded together to form a Joint List that garnered nearly 11 percent of the electorate, equivalent to 13 seats, to become the third largest party in the current Knesset. Ironically, Lieberman’s party received only 5.11 percent of the vote; during the election, it appeared dangerously close to falling below the new threshold.

But now there is a possibility that the government will seek to lower the threshold again. If this comes to fruition it could change a number of things in the next Israeli elections. It could potentially allow for additional right-wing parties, even if it does not necessarily lead to more right-wing seats. This option might be attractive to Netanyahu, whose Likud Party would have more options to choose from when it comes to forming a coalition government. It would also present an interesting challenge to the Arab Joint List, whose members may choose to end their experiment as a shared list and return to contesting the election as separate parties.

The effort to consolidate right-wing domination is not limited to shaping the electoral playing field but extends to crafting the boundaries of permissible civil society activity as well. In 2016, the right-wing government passed a law targeting what it deemed “left-wing” nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that were critical of the state’s policies toward the Palestinians. This law required NGOs receiving more than half of their funding from foreign sources to publicly disclose it. Some 25 out of 27 NGOs in this category were left-wing. The law and the roster it created set the foundation for a continued state-led attack against these organizations. Now, in this session of the Knesset, the right-wing government is set to continue with its agenda of passing laws targeting these organizations by establishing parliamentary inquiry committees and considering laws that would ban such NGOs from receiving foreign funding, effectively eliminating them as well as the weak pulse of dissent left in Israeli society.

As the right-wing Israeli government continues to shape Israeli society in its image and eliminate opportunities for challengers, the biggest threat to the coalition might come in the form of investigations of the prime minister, who is the one holding the coalition together. Several corruption allegations and investigations are swirling around Benjamin Netanyahu, the sole prime minister of Israel since 2009. Interestingly, there is now legislation proposed that could resolve this challenge: Likud Party lawmakers have sought to pass what has become known as the Prime Minister immunity bill, which would shield a sitting prime minister from investigation during his term. The proposed law faces both legal and political hurdles, to be sure, but the right-wing coalition whose very linchpin is threatened by the prospect of indictment may work hard to push it through.

Another Step to the Right

The plethora of legislative initiatives that could come to the fore in this winter session of the Israeli Knesset would record a significant and telling chapter in the story of Israel’s rightward drift. As even longtime members of the Israeli right sound distress signals over the state’s movement toward fascism, Washington along with other members of the international community should take note. For decades, Israel has ruled over millions of people who are not permitted to vote for the regime that rules them. In the coming months, Israeli lawmakers are slated to take legislative steps that, instead of moving toward democracy, would only double down on authoritarianism.