Israeli Cabinet Approves Loyalty Oath for Non-Jews

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The Independent/UK

Israeli Cabinet Approves Loyalty Oath for Non-Jews

Minister warns that divisive legislation will 'incite Arab minority'

by
Donald Macintyre in Jerusalem

Netanyahu is said to have approved the deal to appease hard right elements, but the much wider symbolic resonance of the measure has been strongly condemned by its critics as carrying a needlessly discriminatory message to the international community and more than a million Arab citizens of Israel.

A divided Cabinet yesterday approved a highly
controversial measure that, for the first time in Israel's 62-year
history, requires new non-Jewish citizens to pledge loyalty to it as a
"Jewish and democratic state".

The 22-8 vote approving the bill, which was
supported by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, came despite a split
within his own ruling Likud party, and a warning yesterday by a leading
Labour minister in his coalition that the legislation was a "terrible
mistake" which would "incite the Arab minority".

The
main practical impact of the measure will be to require a relatively
small number of non-Jews seeking naturalisation as Israeli citizens in
the future – including Palestinians from the West Bank marrying Arab
citizens of Israel – to make the loyalty pledge.

But the much wider symbolic resonance of the
measure has been strongly condemned by its critics – including some on
Israel's traditional right wing – as carrying a needlessly
discriminatory message to the international community and more than a
million Arab citizens of Israel.

The legislation
was promoted by Avigdor Lieberman, the hard-right Foreign Minister,
whose party Yisrael Beiteinu had proposed during last year's election
campaign that a similar"loyalty oath" be required of all Arab citizens.
In an acknowledgement that the present measure will not go that far, Mr
Lieberman said after yesterday's vote: "Clearly this will not be the
final word on loyalty and citizenship, but it's an important step."

There
has been unconfirmed speculation that Mr Netanyahu's agreement to
support the measure was intended to secure Mr Lieberman's support for a
possible deal with the US on further limits to settlement expansion,
limits in turn needed for negotiations with the Palestinians to resume.
Mr Lieberman has repeatedly poured scorn on such negotiations.

But
three Cabinet members from Mr Netanyahu's party, Deputy Prime Minister
Dan Meridor, Michael Eitan, and Benny Begin (son of the late Israeli
prime minister Menachem Begin and seen as a right-winger even in Likud
terms), joined their Labour colleagues in voting against the majority
decision.

Avishai Braverman, the Labour
Minorities Minister, said after the vote: "In the world, the public
opinion will go mostly against us, even more; inside, you incite the
Arab minority. Why? Because Netanyahu has to appease Lieberman. A
terrible mistake." His Labour fellow minister Yitzhak Herzog told the
liberal daily Haaretz that support for the legislation showed that
"fascism was devouring the fringes of society".

Ehud
Barak, the Defence Minister and Labour leader, had angered his party
colleagues by saying that he did not object to the proposal in
principle, but proposed an amendment saying the loyalty pledge should be
"in line with" Israel's 1948 Declaration of Independence.

The
Declaration commits Israel to ensuring "complete equality of social and
political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race
or sex".

The Cabinet rejected that amendment
yesterday after one of the measure's main architects, Justice Minister
Ya'akov Ne'eman, said there would be "legal problems" in incorporating
it.

As a result, Mr Barak, who had been earlier
accused by Mr Braverman of "abandoning the values of Labour", voted
against the main measure.

But Mr Netanyahu
said he was recommending to the ministerial committee on legislation –
which will consider the bill before it goes to the Knesset – that it
should find a way of including the reference to the Declaration before
it becomes law.

But Ahmad Tibi, an Arab Knesset
member, said the measure was a provocation whose "purpose is to
solidify the inferior status of Arabs by law".

He
added: "Netanyahu and his Government are limiting the sphere of
democracy in Israel and deepening the prejudice against its Arab
minority."

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