A proposed amendment requiring naturalized citizens to pledge allegiance to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state should apply to all new citizens, Jews and non-Jews alike, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided.

This is a significant change from the cabinet's decision of last week, which was to require the pledge only of non-Jews, since only they actually undergo naturalization: Jews are entitled to automatic citizenship under the Law of Return.

The change is meant to counter charges that the original bill was racist and discriminatory, since it applied only to non-Jews. Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman first proposed it at last week's cabinet session, but was voted down. Now, Netanyahu has decided to back it.

Sources close to Netanyahu denied that this was a "zigzag" on the premier's part, saying he supported the idea at last week's cabinet meeting as well. But after his fellow Likud minister Yuli Edelstein objected, he decided to ask Neeman to reconsider it and find new wording that would be acceptable to both sides.

"I expect everyone who wants to become an Israeli citizen to recognize that Israel is the state of the Jewish nation and a democratic state," Netanyahu said last night. "There is broad agreement among the Israeli public about the state's Jewish and democratic identity. Nor is this by chance. The State of Israel wasn't founded as just another state. It was founded as the sovereign state of the Jewish people in its historic homeland and as a democratic state in which all citizens, both Jews and non-Jews, enjoy full and equal civil rights. Anyone who wishes to join us as an Israeli citizen must recognize both these lofty principles."

Nevertheless, it is far from clear that the change will actually pass. First, Netanyahu's ultra-Orthodox coalition partners will oppose it, as MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism ) was quick to announce yesterday. And that, as MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima ) noted, may well force the premier to back down.

Second, because applying the oath to non-Jews requires amending the Citizenship Law, while applying it to Jews requires amending the Law of Return, the proposals will be legislated on different tracks and apparently even go to different Knesset committees. Thus it is theoretically possible that one could pass while the other failed.

Gafni said the ultra-Orthodox object in principle to loyalty oaths, and he therefore opposed the bill even when it applied only to non-Jews.

"Instead of dealing with the real problems of this country's citizens, like the housing shortage, the prime minister is busy with nonsense," he said. "Aside from the controversy over this proposal, it does nothing to help the state or its citizens. I'll oppose the proposal with all my might."

The change might enable two Likud ministers who voted against the amendment last week, Benny Begin and Michael Eitan, to support it. Though their support isn't needed for the proposal to pass, Netanyahu would prefer it to pass by as large a majority as possible.

But it is not likely to alter the Labor Party's opposition. The latest change to the bill "does nothing to mitigate the damage it has caused to Israel's image overseas and to Jewish-Arab relations," Minority Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman (Labor ) said yesterday.

Plesner, whose party is leader of the opposition, said the change also did nothing to assuage Kadima's objections. The bill has harmed Israel's reputation and "serves no real useful purpose," he declared.

Nor will it mitigate Arab objections. "This is a superfluous dictate and an attempt to impose an ideology that Jews and Arabs alike ought to vehemently oppose," said MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta'al ).

MK Jamal Zahalka (Balad ) agreed. "The bill remains racist, because it demands that the Palestinians humiliate themselves by swearing allegiance to a Jewish state," he said. "What would happen if some country forced the Jews to pledge allegiance to Christian or Muslim ideology? All the fans of this bill would accuse it of anti-Semitism."

The bill will now be submitted to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation. Only after that committee has approved it will it proceed to the Knesset.