One out of 5 Israeli citizens are Arab (or some say Palestinian), a result of the messy way a modern Israel was carved out of Arab land in 1948. Last week, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon led his cabinet in voting 22 to 2 to deny those Arabs the right to buy land in most of Israel.
This blatantly racist action, which denies the democratic principles of Israel's founders, would have run the risk of creating a political storm just before today's opening of international talks on the Middle East in New York.
Those US-sponsored talks are aimed primarily at reforming the sorry state of the Palestinian homeland, and ending attacks on Israel. But the cabinet vote posed a critical moral dilemma: How can the US and others defend Israel against calls in Arab nations to clear Jews out of the Middle East when Israel is suppressing its own Arabs?
What's more, denying Israeli Arabs the right to buy land would have sent a signal that Israel would eventually take all of the West Bank and perhaps Gaza for Jewish settlement. A Jews-only Greater Israel would cement the Mideast conflict as only an ethnic, almost tribal, clash, and prevent the introduction of liberal, principle-based, pluralistic government in the region. It's just that sort of government the US now seeks for the Palestinians.
Fortunately, the Cabinet reversed itself on Sunday, voting 17 to 2 to shelve the "Jews only" land proposal for study. Many Israelis were outraged at the idea of not living in a free and civil state. Nonreligious Jews saw the move as another example of right-wing rabbis trying to impose their brand of Jewishness on the country.
The strong reaction reflects a hope among Israeli Jews that they can eventually live peacefully next to a Palestinian state and all other Middle East nations, as they generally do now with Israeli Arabs. But to do that means not letting Judaism be the operating force running the state.
Israel's identity as both a homeland for Jews and as a democracy will always be complex. But not letting religion run government is a simple choice.