Middle East

Israel's Netanyahu backs Jewish loyalty oath

Benjamin Netanyahu, 4 October
Image caption Mr Netanyahu has given his backing to the citizenship bill

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has re-introduced a proposal to require any non-Jew taking Israeli citizenship to swear allegiance to Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state".

The proposal has angered Israel's Arab minority, which makes up 20% of Israel's population.

Labour party ministers, who also oppose the bill, say they expect a new freeze on settlement building as a payoff.

This is a key Palestinian demand in the current peace talks.

The Israeli cabinet is expected to back the proposal on Sunday. It then goes before the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

If approved, the new law will affect a small number of non-Jews who seek Israeli citizenship.

It will not affect those who seek citizenship under the law of return which gives people of Jewish ancestry the right to settle in Israel and gain citizenship.

Correspondents say it will mainly apply to Palestinians married to Israelis who seek citizenship on the basis of family re-unification, foreign workers, and a few other special cases.

Possible 'payoff'?

The proposal, which is being backed by Mr Netanyahu, has been welcomed by right-wing ministers.

"Everyone who wants to receive Israeli citizenship must swear loyalty to the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state," ultra-nationalist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told public radio.

Mr Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party made the oath the centrepiece of its campaign in the 2009 election, which eventually led to it becoming the second largest member of the governing coalition after Mr Netanyahu's Likud.

But the Labour Party, the junior coalition partner, has questioned the proposed change to Israel's citizenship law.

"I hope that Mr Netanyahu's support is a payoff to Mr Lieberman, so that the prime minister will be able to extend the freeze without breaking apart his coalition," an unnamed minister told Israel's Yediot Ahronot newspaper.

Both Mr Netanyahu and Yisrael Beitenu have denied any deal involving an extension of the partial settlement freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

The recently renewed peace talks are currently at risk of collapse over ongoing Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank, with the Palestinians threatening to walk out unless the freeze is reinstated.

Divisive issue

Recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is one of Israel's key demands in any eventual peace deal with the Palestinians.

To that end, Mr Netanyahu has rejected the right of return of Palestinian refugees, calling it a device to destroy the state of Israel by demography.

The Palestinians, in the form of the Palestinian Authority, have agreed to recognise Israel as a state, but have rejected the demand to recognise its Jewish character.

They say it is unnecessary, that it ignores the Israeli-Arab citizens of Israel, and that in effect, it invalidates the right of return of refugees from previous wars.

Also, the issue of requiring some citizens - mainly Israeli Arabs - to swear allegiance to a Jewish state has proved deeply divisive within Israeli society.

In proposing the requirement, right-wing parties had focused on perceived disloyalty among Israeli Arabs, drawing widespread criticism as well as support.

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