May 7 (UPI) -- Israel's cabinet on Sunday approved legislation that officially defines the country as a Jewish nation-state.
The Ministerial Committee for Legislation voted unanimously to endorse Likud Minister Avi Dichter's Jewish state bill, which also downgrades Arabic from designation as an "official language" and says "the national language is Hebrew."
The legislation, which faces a lengthy process in the Knesset, says that "the State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, in which it realizes its aspirations for self-determination according to its cultural and historic traditions. The realization of national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people."
It would join the so-called 11 Basic Laws, which is similar to a constitution, and guides Israel's legal system.
Religious authorities control many aspects of life, including marriage but Basic Laws pertain to state institutions like the Knesset, the courts or the presidency.
"This is a small step for the Jewish state bill, which establishes that Israel is and will be a Jewish and democratic state, and it's a big step toward defining our identity, not only in the eyes of the world but primarily for ourselves, Israelis. To be a free people in our land," Dichter said after the cabinet's decision.
He said that the bill counters Palestinian efforts to deny Jewish rights to Israel. "Events of recent months prove that this is a battle for the Israel's image and national identity. The Palestinians no longer hide their goal of erasing the Jewish people's nation-state," he wrote in defense of the legislation.
Dichter first introduced the bill in 2014 but it faced criticism from opposition members and even liberal-minded members of his own Likud party. A number of versions of the legislation have been drafted by right-wing lawmakers.
In 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proposed his own version of the legislation. He said the state lacked "adequate expression" of Israel's "existence as the nation-state of the Jewish people" in the Basic Laws.
"For too long, we've been trying to discuss and reach a decision regarding the law – a basic law that's not clear how it hasn't been enshrined in legislation until now – and whose simple goal is to protect Israel's status as the state of the Jewish people," said the acting head of the ministerial committee, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin,
The latest version reached out to liberals by including the phrase "Jewish and democratic" and omitting a previously included affirmation of the importance of settlement throughout Israel's borders.
Critics said that the bill is discriminatory to Israel's Arab and other minority populations.
Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint List, a political alliance of four Arab-dominated parties in Israel, called the Ministerial Committee decision a "declaration of war" on Israel's Arab citizens. "Discrimination has received a legal stamp. The danger in this law in that it establishes two classes of citizen — Jewish and Arab," he wrote in a statement.
Zionist Union Minister Erel Margalit, a contender for the leadership of his party, said that the bill was "reminiscent of dark periods" in history. "The Jewish State law is an effort to erode the only democracy in the Middle East," he told the Times of Israel.