Isabel Kershner
The New York Times
October 10, 2010 - 12:00am

JERUSALEM — The Israeli cabinet on Sunday approved a contentious draft amendment to the country’s citizenship law that calls for non-Jews seeking to become citizens to pledge loyalty to Israel as a Jewish and a democratic state.

Decried by opponents as unnecessary, provocative and racist, the amendment, which is subject to approval by Parliament, encountered a storm of criticism and drove open divisions within the ruling coalition.

The vote was 22 to 8, with the five ministers belonging to the Labor Party, the only center-left element of a mostly right-leaning coalition, joining in opposition with three ministers from the conservative Likud Party led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The timing of the cabinet vote led to widespread speculation by political observers in Israel that it was intended to appease the right wing of Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition in advance of a possible concession to the Palestinians.

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are stalled over the issue of Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, and observers here say that Mr. Netanyahu, under American pressure to extend a moratorium on building in the settlements, may be laying the political ground for such a move by trying to defuse right-wing opposition.

Some saw Sunday’s vote as a typical expression of Mr. Netanyahu’s style of leadership: trying to hold both ends of the stick — balancing the demands of his party and his coalition’s right-wing elements with those of the American-sponsored peace process.

Before the vote, Mr. Netanyahu defended the amendment, telling the cabinet, “There is broad agreement in Israel on the Jewish identity and the democracy of the state of Israel; this is the foundation of our existence here.”

“Anyone who would like to join us,” he said, “needs to recognize this.”

Candidates for naturalization currently swear an oath of allegiance to the state, without elaboration.

Many Israelis, both Arabs and Jews, said they felt the amendment was discriminatory not least because as currently written, it would apply only to non-Jews who want to become naturalized citizens. Those are mainly Arabs from abroad who marry Arab citizens of Israel, and who are likely to reject the definition of Israel as a Jewish state.

The amendment would not apply to Jews or those of Jewish descent, who immigrate to Israel under the country’s Law of Return. This would allow the exemption of ultra-Orthodox Jewish immigrants, many of whom are non-Zionist and would oppose pledging allegiance to a Jewish state.

The minister of welfare and social services, Isaac Herzog, a Labor member of the cabinet, said the amendment was one of a series of steps in recent years that “borders on fascism.”

“Israel is on a slippery slope,” Mr. Herzog told Israel Radio on Sunday.

The Likud ministers who voted against the amendment, Benny Begin, Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan, are strong supporters of equal rights. The Hebrew Web site Ynet quoted Mr. Meridor as saying after the vote, “The law is harmful and causes damage.”

The Parliament’s speaker, Reuven Rivlin, a Likud member but not a cabinet member, told Israel’s Army Radio on Sunday that the amendment could be “provocative and serve as a weapon for the enemies of Zionism.”

Apparently stung by all the criticism, Israel’s justice minister, Yaakov Neeman, who drafted the amendment, proposed on Sunday that it should also apply to Jewish immigrants granted automatic citizenship under the Law of Return.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, of the Labor Party, said he would support the amendment if the words “in the spirit of the principles of the Declaration of Independence” were added to the loyalty oath. The principle of equal rights for all of Israel’s inhabitants was enshrined in the declaration that established the state in 1948.

Mr. Barak’s proposal is to be submitted to the Ministerial Committee on Legislation for discussion, and Mr. Neeman’s will be discussed by the cabinet so it is likely the amendment could be subject to revisions before it goes to Parliament for a vote.

But even if the final amendment applies to Jewish and non-Jewish immigrants, many critics say that it will add to the sense of alienation from the state felt by many Arab citizens, who make up 20 percent of Israel’s population.

A retired Supreme Court justice, Abdel Rahman Zuabi, the first Arab to have served on Israel’s highest court, told Israel Radio last week that if the amendment passes “then there will be two countries in the world that in my opinion are racist: Iran, which is an Islamic state, and Israel, which is the Jewish state.”

The amendment is meant to fulfill a promise made by Mr. Netanyahu in his coalition agreement with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu Party. Mr. Lieberman’s last election campaign included the slogans “No citizenship without loyalty,” and “Only Lieberman understands Arabic.”

Mr. Lieberman and other rightist members of the coalition, like Eli Yishai, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, have called the amendment a first step in loyalty legislation they plan to seek.


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