Netanyahu Oct. 6, 2010 Tess Scheflan
Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset on Wednesday October 6, 2010. Photo by Tess Scheflan
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Every non-Jew wishing to be granted Israeli citizenship will have to declare loyalty to "the State of Israel as a Jewish democratic state," under a proposal to be presented for cabinet approval on Sunday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to back the controversial amendment to the Citizenship Law, having acceded to pressure from Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman. The decision follows several weeks of meetings between Neeman and Netanyahu, with the prime minister assisted by Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser.

The justice minister first raised the proposal at a cabinet meeting in July. Currently, a prospective citizen must merely declare loyalty to "the State of Israel," and Neeman argued that this should be changed.

The move is widely viewed at a measure aimed at Palestinians seeking citizenship or residency after marrying Israeli Arabs.

Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor (Likud ) railed against the proposal when it was first raised, saying it would only embitter relations between Israeli Arabs and the state. The hearing over the measure was delayed for a week, after which Netanyahu suggested a compromise: a declaration of loyalty to Israel "as the nation-state of the Jewish people, which grants full equality to all its citizens." Netanyahu described that change as essential, given the international offensive being waged against Israel's legitimacy as the national home of the Jewish people.

Hauser suggested alternatively that the declaration refer to the "principles of the Declaration of Independence."

But after Neeman rejected Netanyahu's compromise, the cabinet agreed that the prime and justice ministers should consult on the matter and bring their decision before the cabinet within a month.

Now it seems that after over two months of meetings, Netanyahu has finally succumbed to the justice minister's pressure. Having abandoned his plan for a compromise formulation, he has adopted Neeman's original wording almost exactly.

Neeman's version was drafted in conjunction with Interior Minister and Shas chairman Eli Yishai, who since taking office has taken a consistently hard line on citizenship, conversion and immigration policy.

"A 'Jewish democratic state' is language common in Israeli legislation, so it is appropriate for it to appear in the declaration of loyalty of someone who wishes to receive Israeli citizenship," a source in the prime minister's bureau said.

Netanyahu said on Wednesday that "Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people. That principle guides government policy, both foreign and domestic, and is a cornerstone of Israeli legislation."

Netanyahu's advisers said that Israel's position in peace talks with the Palestinians makes a modification of the existing loyalty declaration necessary. "We must demand of ourselves what we demand of the world and the Palestinians," one adviser said. "Recognizing Israel as a Jewish state is a central issue in our talks with the Palestinians, and that's why we have to make our own legislation align with our diplomatic positions."

The advisers added, however, that the changes should in no way interfere with Israeli-Palestinian talks. "We believe recognition as a Jewish state can never be so sensitive an issue as to fear raising it," said one official in Netanyahu's bureau.

If the measure receives cabinet approval, it will be brought to the Knesset, where it will be handled by the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. The goal is to enact the law during the Knesset's upcoming winter session.

Yisrael Beiteinu lawmakers welcomed the proposed legislation, which was an important condition set by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's party before joining the governing coalition. A statement from the party said, "Every citizen is obligated to preserve Israel as a Jewish democratic state, all the more so an individual who is not a citizen but desires to become one. This is a fundamental, basic necessity, particularly when there are those seeking to undermine" Israel's legitimacy.

But MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta'al ) described the plan as an attempt "to codify the Arabs' inferior position in law ... No declaration can write over the Palestinian narrative, which has earned the recognition of the entire world." The measure, Tibi added, "deepens the exclusion and deprivation of the Arab minority."

The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee vowed to write to U.S. President Barack Obama and members of the Quartet (the U.S., United Nations, European Union and Russia ) to make clear that it opposes recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.

Labor Party ministers voiced embarrassment at the plan. "I very much hope that Netanyahu's support is simply a 'fee' paid to Lieberman so the prime minister can extend the settlement freeze without destroying the coalition," one Labor minister said.

But Minority Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman was the only minister from Labor - a coalition member - to speak out publicly against the measure. He said he would meet with other ministers from the party to form a united front against the bill.

MK Nahman Shai of the opposition Kadima party said, "Netanyahu apparently wants to torpedo the direct talks with the Palestinians and lose the trust of Israeli Arabs."