ISRAEL’S cabinet has approved a bill that would require new citizens to pledge a loyalty oath to a “Jewish and democratic” state, language that triggered charges of racism from Arab lawmakers who see it as undermining the rights of the country’s Arab minority.
Few non-Jews apply for Israeli citizenship, so if the bill passes into law, the legislation would not directly affect Arab citizens of Israel, who make up 20% of the population.
Nevertheless, it has infuriated the Arab minority and stoked tensions with Palestinians at a time when fledgling peace talks are deadlocked over Israel’s refusal to extend a moratorium on new building in West Bank Jewish settlements.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the bill by saying it reflected the essence of Israel at a time when, he said, many in the world are trying to blur the connection between the Jewish people and their homeland.
“The state of Israel is the national state of the Jewish people and is a democratic state in which all its citizens – Jews and non-Jews – enjoy full equal rights,” he said. “Whoever wants to join us has to recognise us.”
Ahmad Tibi, an Arab lawmaker, called the move a provocation. “Its purpose is to solidify the inferior status of Arabs by law,” he said. “Netanyahu and his government are limiting the sphere of democracy in Israel and deepening the prejudice against its Arab minority.”
Unlike their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel’s Arabs are citizens, with the right to vote, travel freely and to collect generous social benefits. But they have long suffered from second-class status, frequently suffering discrimination in housing and the job market.
While the new bill would not force them to profess their loyalty, it would require a foreign-born spouse to take the oath in order to receive citizenship.
The bill is backed by Yisrael Beitenu, a hardline nationalist party whose leader, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, openly questioned the loyalty of Israel’s Arabs during last year’s election campaign.
“I think this is an important step forward. Obviously this is not the end of the issue of loyalty in return for citizenship, but this is a highly important step,” he said.
The vote came during an impasse in Middle East peacemaking. Just a month after their launch at a White House ceremony, talks between Israeli and the Palestinians have become deadlocked over Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank.
Palestinians say they will not resume negotiations unless Israel extends a 10-month-old slowdown on new housing starts, which ended in late September.
Netanyahu has rejected an extension, but is considering compromises to keep the talks alive. Over the weekend the Arab League gave the US, which has been mediating talks, another month to resolve the deadlock.
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