JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday he would seek a new law declaring Israel a Jewish state, striking back against a Palestinian refusal to recognize that status in now-collapsed peace talks.
"I will promote a Basic Law that will define Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people," Netanyahu said in a speech in Tel Aviv that alluded to Palestinian rejection of his demand to recognize Israel as such in the U.S.-backed negotiations.
Palestinians fear this label would lead to discrimination against Israel's sizeable Arab minority, which makes up a fifth of its population, and negate any right of return of Palestinian refugees from wars since 1948 to what is now Israel.
Israeli enshrinement in law of the concept of Israel as a Jewish state - a definition that was included in its 1948 Declaration of Independence - could complicate any efforts to restart negotiations that stumbled over that issue and others.
Netanyahu, speaking in the hall where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1948, said those seeking the creation of a Palestinian state, while refusing to recognize Israel as a Jewish nation, were challenging its right to exist.
Mohammad Barakeh, an Arab lawmaker from the left-wing Hadash party, said legislation declaring a Jewish state would be racist in nature. "The truth is, I was surprised by his intention to bring this as a Basic Law," Barakeh told Reuters by telephone.
"I have been following Netanyahu's actions in the peace talks. I know he doesn't want peace and wants to put a spanner in the works. But he's gone too far with this."
In lieu of a formal constitution, a series of Basic Laws adopted by parliament since Israel's founding define governmental, legislative and judicial powers, protect civil rights and codify Jerusalem's internationally disputed status as the country's capital.
A new Basic Law declaring Israel a Jewish state would largely be symbolic, an Israeli official said. "It is declaration to show that this is part of our national ethos."
Israel's Basic Law declaring Jerusalem, including the eastern sector captured in a 1967 war, its "eternal and indivisible capital" does not carry any punitive measures against those who oppose that declared status.
Netanyahu, in his address, pledged that Israel will always "ensure full equality in the personal and social rights of all its citizens - Jews and non-Jews alike - in a Jewish and democratic state."
Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer, editing by Mark Heinrich