Israeli bill will require pledge to 'Jewish' state
JERUSALEM // Both Jews and non-Jews seeking Israeli citizenship would be required to pledge allegiance to Israel as a "Jewish and democratic" state if a bill approved by the cabinet yesterday becomes law. The measure, which the government ministers passed 22-8, has been called racist by Israel's Arab citizens and comes as Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have stalled over the issue of illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
The measure still needs the approval of parliament to become law. In its current form, the bill would not affect existing citizens of Israel, including its population of nearly 1.3 million Arabs. But it would apply to those seeking naturalisation. Palestinian officials in the West Bank warned that the legislation could hurt the deadlocked negotiations by jeopardising the right of return for Palestinian refugees, a key Palestinian demand and a core issue that has long divided the two sides.
"Not only does it have implications of the right of return, but also for the existing citizens of Israel, both Muslims and Christian," said Husam Zomlot, a member of the international affairs for Fatah, the most influential Palestinian faction in the West Bank. Mr Zomlot described it as "a clear, blunt, racist rule" that could one day be manipulated to make it so that "every citizen has to take the oath".
Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, defended the bill during yesterday's cabinet meeting and cited historical references to Israel as a Jewish state, including its declaration of independence. "The state of Israel is the national state of the Jewish people and is a democratic state in which all its citizens - Jewish and non-Jewish - enjoy fully equal rights," he said. He also criticised those who have opposed it, saying, to his regret, "today, there are those who are trying to blur not only the unique connection between the Jewish people and its homeland, but also the connection between the Jewish people" and their state.
Ahmad Tibi, an Arab member of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, said that if the bill becomes law, it would confirm what Israel's Arabs say is their second-class status in Israeli society. "Its purpose is to solidify the inferior status of Arabs by law," he said, according to the Associated Press. "Netanyahu and his government are limiting the sphere of democracy in Israel and deepening the prejudice against its Arab minority."
Isaac Herzog, a minister with the Labor Party, also voiced opposition to the measure. He said it was "unnecessary and doesn't serve the interests of the state of Israel. It has a certain ideological logic behind it but has adverse effect on Israel's image and its spirit of true democracy." The bill did receive firm backing from Yisrael Beitenu, the ultra-nationalist party of Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's foreign minister. He has drawn controversy over comments made about the loyalty of Israel's Arabs and has proposed exchanging areas in Israel with large Arab populations for settlements in the West Bank.
"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," Mr Lieberman said. There were indications that the bill's approval might have been an attempt by Mr Netanyahu to appease Mr Lieberman, who has been opposed to an extension of a freeze on settlement construction. Israel lifted a 10-month freeze on such construction on September 26, which brought Israeli-Palestinian talks to a halt only a month after they had resumed. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, has said negotiations cannot continue amid settlement expansion.
Mr Netanyahu is reported to be interested in finding a way to extend the freeze, in part because of offers of weaponry and political support in the UN by the United States. Last weekend, Arab leaders meeting in Libya decided to hold off from abandoning the talks for another month to let the United States, the chief mediator of the negotiations, to resolve the settlement issue. Meanwhile, Bernard Kouchner, France's foreign minister, said he would not rule out a proposal under which the Palestinians would ask the United Nations, in the face of deadlocked negotiations, to support their unilateral establishment of a Palestinian state.
Palestinian officials, including Mr Abbas, are reported to have raised the idea in the meetings in Libya. "We want to be able to soon welcome the state of Palestine to the United Nations," Mr Kouchner is reported to have said, adding: "I believe that one cannot rule out in principle the Security Council option."
* With additional reporting by Agence-France Presse