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Israeli Cabinet Pulls Back From Controversial Bill

Mideast: Ministers set aside legislation to limit Arabs' right to buy land a week after endorsing it.


JERUSALEM — Backtracking on an emotional issue, the Israeli Cabinet on Sunday set aside a bill it had endorsed just last week that would allow Arab citizens of Israel to be barred from buying homes or land in many Jewish communities.

The proposal sparked a firestorm of criticism after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government voted to back it during a closed session a week ago. Critics accused Sharon and his allies of railroading the measure through the Cabinet while most ministers from the center-left Labor Party were absent. Others blasted the bill as state-sponsored racism that would legalize the existence of "Jews-only" towns.

Apparently in response to the fusillade of criticism, the Cabinet revisited the issue Sunday, with Labor members present, and voted, 22 to 2, to send the bill to committee--an action that analysts said in effect kills its chances of becoming law.

The U-turn spares Sharon a bitter public confrontation with his foreign minister, Shimon Peres, a senior Labor figure who threatened to quit the government if necessary to fight its "racist decision" to endorse the legislation.

Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Sharon, said Sunday's vote reflected the Israeli leader's view that the bill needed further examination to determine whether it was the right way for Israel to go about maintaining its sometimes-contradictory status as both a Jewish and a democratic state.

"It would be improper at this stage to send it" to the Knesset, Israel's parliament, Gissin said, particularly because the proposal "has implications on the very delicate fabric of relations between Jews and Arabs and among Jews themselves."

But he signaled that the sticking point for Sharon lies more in procedure than aim.

"We don't in any way discard the idea that Jewish settlement in Israel is a critical component in the realization of the Zionist vision," Gissin declared. "That's what we came back [to Israel] for."

The proposed law would have granted Jewish Israelis the right to shut out the country's 1 million Arab citizens--who make up about 20% of the population--from purchasing homes or living on state-owned property.

This translates into most of Israel, since the state controls the vast majority of land, most of which has been allocated for Jewish use through the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency.

The controversial bill was introduced by one of Israel's ultranationalist parties to undercut a landmark Supreme Court decision two years ago that declared all citizens, Arab or Jew, equally entitled to live where they want within Israel's borders. (The decision did not apply to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories captured by Israel in 1967.)

The highly charged debate that followed the court ruling exposed the conflicting feelings many here have over whether Israel can be both a Jewish and democratic state at the same time, or whether one takes precedence over the other.

Supporters of the bill contend that such a measure is necessary to preserve the nation's very raison d'etre and its security.

But opponents say it goes against the values of fairness and nondiscrimination that Israel, a nation founded in large part by survivors of Nazi hatred, ought to embody.

"They understood that such a racist law won't stand in front of the high court," Zehava Galon, a Knesset member from the left-leaning Meretz Party, said after Sunday's vote. "I said that if the law is going to pass, I'm going to appeal to the high court.... Otherwise, we're going to have apartheid in Israel."

Other critics warned that international opinion of Israel, already low in some quarters because of its military reoccupation of the West Bank, would drop further if the bill went through.

"It is liable to turn Israel into an internally fractured, troubled state--one that is isolated internationally due to the revulsion of the developed world," the Haaretz newspaper said in an editorial.

In reality, this tiny nation is already fractured and segregated along ethnic and religious lines, mainly between Arabs and Jews, though there are other groups.

Arabs, through tradition and solidarity, live in their own villages, even though they say their communities suffer from substandard public services and official neglect. Jews have their own enclaves, many of whose residents are unwilling to cross over even one block into Arab neighborhoods for fear of attack.

To many conservatives, this is as it should be, through both choice and legal sanction. They charged that Sharon's retreat on Sunday showed political cowardice.

"The government has simply caved in," Yitzhak Levy, one of the two ministers to vote in favor of the "Jews-only" bill, told Israeli radio. Levy is a member of the National Religious Party, which drafted the proposal.

Levy complained that Sharon, who belongs to the Likud Party, refused to let him find another way for the bill to reach the Knesset floor. "This wasn't a democratic way to run the Cabinet meeting, to say the very least," Levy said.

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