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The interminable discussions in the government on the exact wording to be used in the pledge of allegiance for those taking on Israeli citizenship are a complete waste of time. What's more, this discussion is an indication that government ministers seem not to realize that allegiance cannot be enforced, not even through the words of a pledge for new citizens composed by a committee of government ministers.

Loyalty to a country is something that must come naturally. It is an expression of the innermost feelings of a citizen toward his country and countrymen. Its ultimate expression is the willingness to defend the country against its enemies.

The soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces, Jews and Arabs, although formally sworn in after completing basic training, need no pledge to affirm their loyalty to the State of Israel. Their service in the IDF, and their willingness to risk life and limb for the country, is sufficient confirmation of that.

Defending Israel against external threats via IDF service is an essential element of integrating Israel's Arab citizens into the fabric of society. Only those prepared to defend the state truly feel at home here.

Not that other dimensions of citizenship can be neglected - budgets need to be allocated to Arab townships, efforts have to be made to provide equal opportunities to Arab citizens - but achieving an equality of obligations, including service in the IDF, remains the cornerstone of successful integration.

We do not need to look at other democratic countries to confirm the truth of this assertion. Israel itself is the proof of that. The minority population that has achieved the highest degree of integration into the Israeli social fabric are the Druze. Unquestionably, this is due to their army service.

It affects their view of themselves as Israeli citizens, as well as the view of Israel's Jewish citizens of them. But successive Israeli governments have neglected to engage the Arab Muslim and Christian communities as far as military service is concerned.

Over the years individual Christians and Muslims have volunteered for military service. Attempts to encourage Bedouin to volunteer for service in the IDF have been no more than desultory. (That, by the way, and for different reasons, has been true of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community as well. )

But there has been no government policy that would lead to obligatory military service for all.

One of the reasons given for this abnormal state of affairs is that one should not expect Israel's Arab citizens to be willing to fight against Israel's Arab enemies. Yet no other democratic country exempts some of its minorities from military service on such grounds.

Some have gone even farther in their reasoning, insisting that different nationalities cannot be expected to live in peace with each other within a common framework of sovereignty, an argument that better not apply to Israel, with its large minority population.

The basic question is whether it is possible to build a society in Israel in which Arab citizens will feel at home, feel a sense of loyalty to the state and be prepared to defend it against its enemies. Israel is not Bosnia or Serbia, not the Caucasus and not Sudan, countries frequently cited in attempts to prove the impossibility of building a harmonious multinational society.

Israel is a well- established democracy, in which the rule of law prevails. It has a high standard of living and is a land of opportunity for hundreds of thousands, who yearn for its borders.

Most of Israel's Arabs know that all too well. Most of them prefer living in Israel to being incorporated into a future Palestinian state. So why not take part in defending it?

At present two factors militate against that. First, great economic benefits are attached to not dedicating three years to military service, and having gotten used to that it is a habit not easy to break. Secondly, there is the subversive Islamic Movement spreading its propaganda among Israel's Arab citizens, and preaching against military service.

A determined government effort can overcome these obstacles. A pledge of allegiance will not.