Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak - Tomer Appelbaum
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon in the Knesset. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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Justice Minister Ya'akov Ne'eman on Sunday suggested rewording the draft of his proposed loyalty oath to require both Jews and non-Jews alike to pledge their allegiance to Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state."

Ne'eman made the suggestion as cabinet ministers were deliberating and preparing to vote on his controversial amendment to the Citizenship Law, which would require only non-Jews seeking citizenship to make such a declaration.

As the divided cabinet began its deliberations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated his support for the proposal. "The State of Israel is the national state of the Jewish people and it is a democratic state for all its citizenship," he said. "Jews and non-Jews enjoy equality and full rights."

"Unfortunately, there are many today who tried to blur not only the unique connection of the Jewish people to its homeland, but also the connection of the Jewish people to its state," Netanyahu added.

"Democracy is the soul of Israel and we cannot do without it. No one can preach democracy or enlightenment to us," Netanyahu added. "Zionism established an exemplary national state, a state that balances between the national needs of our people and the individual rights or every citizen in the country."

"There is no other democracy in the Middle East," he declared. "There is no other Jewish state in the world. The combination of these two lofty values expresses the foundation of our national life and anyone who would like to join us needs to recognize this."

Netanyahu announced last week that he supports the proposal and it is expected to pass in the cabinet, as well.

Defense Minister and Labor Party Chairman Ehud Barak said Sunday that he would vote against the proposal unless the cabinet agreed to amend the wording. Barak said last week that he supported the amendment to the law but had reservations.

He said that the formulation of the declaration should be made in such a way so the pledge of allegiance should to the State of Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence of [1948]."

Barak insisted that adding a reference to the Declaration of Independence "would be the best way to reflect the fundamental values of the State of Israel."

This slight change to include the declaration "would not harm the Arab minority," he said, noting that similar declarations are common in many countries in the world.

Most Labor ministers announced they will oppose the bill, including Isaac Herzog and Avishay Braverman, who lead the opposition, and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who was absent from the meeting but left a letter in which he expresses his opposition.

Minister Shalom Simhon (Labor) will also not be at the meeting; he is abroad on a business trip.

Herzog told Haaretz late Saturday that the resounding support for such an amendment showed that "fascism was devouring the margins of society."

"We are on a most dangerous slippery slope," he warned.

Likud ministers Dan Meridor and Benny Begin are expected to try and dissuade their cabinet colleagues from supporting the proposal. Their final vote remains unclear.

Sources close to Barak said last week that he does not oppose the basis of the amendment and does not consider the proposal problematic. However, it was not possible on Saturday to understand from those close to the defense minister whether he would support the proposal during the cabinet meeting or not, and whether he put forth his own proposal for a vote.

Due to the opposition the proposal stirred among Labor ministers, Barak issued a statement Saturday granting his party's ministers the right to vote as they saw fit.
"This is a matter of conscience and as such I will allow the Labor ministers to vote in line with their conscience," Barak said.

Braverman, meanwhile, accused Barak of "abandoning the values of Labor" and intends to describe the proposal during the cabinet meeting as "a stain on the government of Israel."

Dan Meridor is also expected to lead an assault on the proposal and has warned that such an amendment to the law could severely damage relations with the Arab population in Israel.

Meridor is expected to attempt to persuade Likud ministers to delay the vote on the amendment.

Among the opponents to the amendment is Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin. He said: "The students of Jabotinsky see no need for such bill. I am a fervent Zionist, and I need no strengthening of my belief. The establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel was an ethical act that the world recognized, and it gained great respect when we described our country as Jewish and democratic. This description is also anchored specifically in the Declaration of Independence and the Law on Elections, and any additions of this type can only be harmful."

The amendment is one of the promises Netanyahu made to Yisrael Beitenu in the coalition agreements. Since coming into government Yisrael Beitenu has advanced a long list of "loyalty" laws, which many consider to be discriminatory against Israel's Arab citizens.

"This law will not assist us as a society and a state. On the contrary, it could arm our enemies and opponents in the world in an effort to emphasize the trend for separatism or even racism within Israel," Rivlin said.

"I am not opposed to saying each morning and evening that we are a Jewish and democratic state, but why do we need this law?" Rivlin said.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai said, meanwhile, that he would propose his own bill that strip citizenship off of anyone convicted of disloyalty to the state.

"Declarations are not enough in the fact against incidents such as [MKs] Azmi Bishara and Hanin Zoabi," Yishai said in reference to two Israeli Arab lawmakers, one who is suspected of having contacts with enemy states and the other who took part in a Gaza-bound aid flotilla. "Anyone who betrays the state will lose his citizenship."