Israeli cabinet backs controversial Jewish loyalty oath

The Israeli cabinet has approved a controversial bill
that would require all non-Jews taking Israeli citizenship to swear loyalty to
Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state”.

The law, which has angered Israel’s Arab minority, still
has to be passed by the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

A similar measure was rejected by the cabinet in May
2009.

If approved, the new law will affect a small number of
non-Jews who seek Israeli citizenship.

Correspondents say it will mainly apply to Palestinians
married to Israelis who seek citizenship on the basis of family re-unification,
foreign workers, and a few other special cases.

Arabs make up 20% of Israel’s population.

The proposal, which is being backed by Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu, had been welcomed by right-wing ministers in the 30-member
coalition cabinet, including ultra-nationalist Foreign Minister Avigdor
Lieberman.

Mr Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party made the oath the
centrepiece of its campaign in the 2009 election, which eventually led to it
becoming the second largest member of the governing coalition after Mr
Netanyahu’s Likud.

Israeli media reported that all five ministers from the
left-leaning Labour party voted against the proposal, as did three members of
Netanyahu’s own Likud.

Before the vote, Labour ministers had said they expected
a new freeze on settlement building as a pay-off should the law come into
effect.

This is a key Palestinian demand in the current peace
talks.

But both Mr Netanyahu and Yisrael Beitenu denied any deal
involving an extension of the partial settlement freeze on Jewish settlements
in the West Bank.

The recently renewed peace talks are at risk of collapse
over ongoing Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank, with the
Palestinians threatening to walk out unless the freeze is reinstated.

Recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is one of
Israel’s key demands in any eventual peace deal with the Palestinians.

To that end, Mr Netanyahu has rejected the right of
return of Palestinian refugees, calling it a device to destroy the state of
Israel by demography.

The Palestinians, in the form of the Palestinian
Authority, have agreed to recognise Israel as a state, but have rejected the
demand to recognise its Jewish character.

Also, the issue of requiring some citizens – mainly
Israeli Arabs – to swear allegiance to a Jewish state has proved deeply
divisive within Israeli society.

In proposing the requirement, right-wing parties had
focused on perceived disloyalty among Israeli Arabs, drawing widespread
criticism as well as support.