Israel's right wing cabinet has approved a controversial new loyalty oath for non-Jewish citizens, sparking accusations of racism from the country's Arab minority and criticism from moderate Israeli politicians.
If passed by the Israeli Knesset, non-Jewish applicants for Israeli citizenship will have to swear allegiance to a "Jewish and democratic state." Critics say the oath invites discrimination towards non-Jews.
The new ruling is expected to be passed into law in the next few months and will affect several thousand people a year, mainly Arabs who marry Israeli Arab citizens. Jewish people wishing to become new citizens of Israel will not have to take the oath.
On Sunday Prime Minister Netanyahu, who heads a right wing governing coalition, defended the move.
"The state of Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people and is a democratic state in which all of its citizens, Jews and non-Jews, enjoy full equal rights. Whoever wants to join us has to recognize us," he said.
But critics said the new oath was further evidence of the state's discrimination against non-Jews. Arabs, both Christian and Muslim, make up 20 percent of Israel's population. They have long complained of institutional discrimination against them.
Ahmed Tibi, a prominent Arab member of the Israeli Knesset said of the new oath: "Its purpose is to solidify the inferior status of Arabs by law. Netanyahu and his government are limiting the sphere of democracy and deepening the prejudice against its Arab minority."
Critical voices included senior Israeli politicians.
Dan Meridor, minister of Intelligence and Strategic Affairs and a member of Netanyahu's own Likud Party, said the law was unnecessary and could damage relations between the Jewish majority and Arab citizens.
"Lately there has been suggestion after suggestion after suggestion meant to send messages to the Arab public – 'this is not yours, this is not your country' ....Arab citizens are constantly reminded that they do not belong and yet we demand loyalty from them," he told Israel Radio today.
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The new oath will be introduced at a time of heightened tension between right wing Israeli politicians and the Arab minority.
Controversial Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his Israel Beitenu Party have campaigned for the introduction of a loyalty oath and support land and population swaps with the Palestinians to reduce the size of Israel's Arab minority.
"Obviously this is not the end of the issue of loyalty in return for citizenship, but this is a highly important step," he said of Sunday's cabinet vote.
The vote comes at a time of deadlock in the U.S. sponsored peace talks with the Palestinians. The Palestinians refuse to continue dialogue unless Netanyahu extends a moratorium on construction in Jewish settlements. The Obama administration is reportedly pushing for a two to three month extension.
Some political commentators say Netanyahu's support for the new loyalty oath may be a political concession to his right wing partners in return for their approval of an extension.