Israel's cabinet next week will consider a bill that would require non-Jewish candidates for Israeli citizenship to pledge allegiance to the country as a Jewish state.
The bill, backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calls for an amendment to Israel's citizenship law to include "a Jewish and democratic state" in a mandatory oath of loyalty.
In addition to kicking up accusations of discrimination against the country's Arab minority, observers suggested the proposal is timed to push Israel's diplomatic campaign to force the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a condition for a peace accord.
"There is an agenda here," says Yedidia Stern, a law professor at Bar Ilan University and vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute. "The agenda is to push in the face of everybody how serious we are about the definition" of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
Mr. Netanyahu's office announced its endorsement of the amendment just as US, Israeli, and Palestinian negotiators are struggling to resolve a dispute over settlement expansion that has Palestinian leaders threatening to abandon direct negotiations.
Israeli journalists asked the prime minister Thursday if his support for the bill was meant to buy the support of ultranationalist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who failed to pass a controversial loyalty oath for Arab citizens, for an extension of a moratorium on new housing in the West Bank.
Though Netanyahu demurred, he did say that significance of the revised loyalty oath is part of something bigger
"There is a very great struggle today to nullify and blur the character of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people and to say that it doesn't belong to the Jewish people on a national basis," said Netanyahu. "I think that the struggle on this issue, both on an international and a domestic level, is a necessary struggle."
Ever since Netanyahu first threw his support behind creating a Palestinian state in 2009, Israel has pursued a demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a state of the Jewish people as part of the negotiations. The Palestinians have resisted, arguing that the issue is solely a domestic one.
The amendment was made public at a sensitive diplomatic juncture. On Friday and Saturday, the Arab League is expected to issue a statement regarding the future of Palestinian participation in the peace talks after Israel ended a moratorium on settlement building. There have been intensified diplomatic contacts over the last two weeks to avoid a breakdown of the talks.
"There are direct talks with the Palestinians and they are refusing to recognizing Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, in contrast to the UN in 1948," says Tal Nahum, the spokesman for Foreign Minister Lieberman's political party, Yisrael Beiteinu. "It's very important for us that the rest of the world will recognize Israel as a Jewish state … This is what this amendment is for."
Are Israel's Jewish and democratic identities in conflict?
Israelis have become more alarmed in recent years at what many here consider a growing campaign internationally to delegitimize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state.
The country's one-fifth Arab minority sees the amendment to the citizenship law as new evidence that there is a conflict between Israel's dual identity as Jewish and democratic. There has been growing support among Palestinians for the so-called "one state" solution, which would essentially give everyone living in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel citizenship in one country, which would end the exclusive Jewish character of the state.
Jaffar Farah, the director of the Israeli civil rights group Mossawa, noted that the bill would have little practical impact because family members of Israeli Arabs have been barred from becoming naturalized citizens under legislation passed during the height of the Palestinian uprising. Still, that doesn't ease the sense of injury.
"This is a dictatorship of the majority," he says. "We see this as part of the delegitimization campaign against our existence in Israel, which is led by the current government since it was established."
Law Professor Stern says it's reasonable for Israel to require naturalized citizens to recite such a pledge because Israel's quasi-constitutional Basic Laws mention the country's identity as a Jewish and democratic state. What is problematic, he said, is enforcing that requirement solely on non-Jews. Under Israel's Law of Return, Jewish requests for citizenship are granted automatically.
"In order to make it totally kosher we need to demand the same kind of pledge of everyone," he says. "If we want people to commit to a set of values, what does it make a difference whether they are Jewish or not?"