Israeli cabinet to consider loyalty oath for citizens – including Arabs

On Sunday, Netanyahu's government votes on two bills designed to shore up support for Israel as a Jewish state.

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman attends a session of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem Monday. Lieberman's party plans to propose legislation requiring residents to swear loyalty to the Jewish state, a move critics denounced as liable to hamper the rights of Arab citizens. Lieberman's party is junior partner in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government.

After riding an ethnically divisive campaign to third place in Israeli elections, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's party is using its newfound political leverage to push legislation that would force Arab citizens to formally recognize the Jewish character of the state and clamp down on freedom of speech.

On Sunday, cabinet ministers will vote on whether to introduce a pair of bills to parliament, the first of which would institute a loyalty oath as a requirement for citizenship – a proposal at the core of Yisrael Beytenu's campaign promise of "no citizenship without loyalty." The second would outlaw public expressions of grief over the Palestinian displacement in 1948 – known as the nakba, or catastrophe – on Israel's Independence Day holiday.

The proposals are an attempt to push back against Israel's one-fifth Arab minority as they assert their Palestinian identity more openly and show solidarity with the West Bank and Gaza Strip, most recently during Israel's January war against Hamas.

At the heart of the issue are two interlinked fears. Israeli Jews worry that a growing Arab minority is challenging the Jewish character of the country. Arabs, who don't identify with the country's flag or national anthem, see recognition of the state's Jewish character as enshrining their status as second-class citizens.

Although the status of Israeli Arabs has normally taken a back seat to peace negotiations with the Palestinians, the new leverage of Mr. Lieberman and his ultranationalist allies to build momentum against Arab goals is drawing attention to domestic discrimination in Israel. On Wednesday, the parliament gave preliminary approval to a third piece of legislation that makes it an offense to negate Israel's Jewish character.

"This is pushing the issue of Israeli Arabs higher up the hierarchy of the news in the Arab world. This could also create tension in the US, because [President Barack] Obama is going to Cairo to talk about rapprochement between America and the Islamic world," says Meir Javedanfar, a Middle East analyst based in Tel Aviv.

"Going down this road can open up a whole can of worms," he adds. "It would mean more conflict with the Arab world, it would damage Israel's image in Europe and the US, which is already in bad shape."

Israeli Jews' fear: minority doesn't hallow Israel as homeland

Lieberman's election campaign tapped into fear among Israeli Jews about a national minority growing in numbers that does not subscribe to the political establishment's assertion that the country serve first and foremost as a national homeland for the Jewish people.

In recent years, Israeli Arab leaders have demanded constitutional reforms that would give them a degree of autonomy and recognition as a national minority. But Lieberman, who grew up in the former Soviet republic of Moldova before moving to Israel in the late 1970s, considers ethnic irredentism as a leading geopolitical destabilizing force in the past century.

Another Yisrael Beytenu member equated the stance of Israeli Arabs who observe the Palestinian nakba to that of the Hamas leadership in Gaza.

"Both of them are calling for the immediate destruction of the state of Israel," says Tsach Saar, a spokesman for Alex Miller, the parliament member who introduced the nakba law.

"I don't know any democratic country that would allow the existence of such an absurdity. We are raising the issue of how the people in Israel are grappling with the phenomenon of a lack of loyalty to the state alongside the enjoyment of equal rights."

Israeli Arabs' fear: second-class citizenship in Jewish state

The draft legislation for a loyalty oath proposes requiring citizens to declare "loyalty to the State of Israel as a state that is Jewish, Zionist, and democratic, to its symbols and values" and promise to fulfill national service requirements before receiving identification cards issued by the Interior Ministry. The proposal to ban nakba observances suggests a three-year jail term for public expressions of "mourning" on Israeli Independence Day.

The bills come at a time when the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is coming under increasing pressure abroad to resume negotiations on creating a Palestinian state and to rein in settlement expansion.

As a precondition to negotiations with the Palestinians, Mr. Netanyahu wants them to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, a move which Israeli Arab citizens fear will enshrine them as second-class citizens.

Arab leaders argue that the threat of disenfranchisement is meant to spur violence and ultimately force them to emigrate.

"They want to complicate the Jewish-Arab relationship inside of Israel to prevent any progress in the peace negotiations. They want to prove that the Arabs don't want to live with the Jews and there is no chance for reconciliation," says Jafar Farah, the director of Mossawa, an Arab Israeli civil rights group.

"There are two alternative visions that the Jews in Israel have to decide between: of isolation and wars and ghetto, or of a vision of peace and coexistence," adds Mr. Farah, who held meetings with a delegation of US congressmen at the Knesset on Wednesday. "And if they decide for peace and coexistence, they should start with us."

Israeli Arab support for violence has tripled since 2003

The friction appears to be affecting Arab public opinion, according to a recent Haifa University study. Only 41 percent now recognize Israel's right to be a Jewish and democratic state, compared with 66 percent in 2003. Even more troubling: Some 13 percent of Israeli Arabs said they support the use of violence to improve their lives – almost triple the percentage from 2003.

Yisrael Beytenu Knesset member David Rotem, the sponsor of the loyalty-oath law and the chair of the parliament's constitution and law committee, told Israel's Arutz Sheva news service that the poll is evidence of the "bottomless hatred toward the Jewish people of a large part of Arab Israelis.... We must wake up and smell the coffee and take action immediately."

The right-wing offensive is helping efforts by Arab leaders inside Israel to lobby foreign diplomats, nongovernmental groups, and even diaspora Jews to pressure Israel for more equality. Arab leaders in Israel say they also have claims regarding land loss and displacement that should be addressed at the peace table with Palestinians.

"The Arab public at large feels the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be resolved without taking the Arab Israelis into consideration," says Sammy Smooha, a sociologist who conducted the Haifa University poll. "This is an internationalization of the Israeli-Arab issue. Lieberman is contributing in his own way."

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