Israeli foreign minister's party to introduce 'loyalty bill'

JERUSALEM - An ultranationalist party headed by the Israeli foreign minister said Monday it has prepared legislation linking citizenship to an oath of allegiance, in what amounted to a threat to the country's Arabs to swear loyalty to the Jewish state or risk severe punishment.

JERUSALEM - An ultranationalist party headed by the Israeli foreign minister said Monday it has prepared legislation linking citizenship to an oath of allegiance, in what amounted to a threat to the country's Arabs to swear loyalty to the Jewish state or risk severe punishment.

The bill follows a separate proposal Sunday by the same party that would make it illegal for Arabs to mourn the "catastrophe" - the term Palestinians use to describe their defeat and exile in the war that surrounded Israel's founding.

Both proposals by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party focus on the perceived disloyalty of the country's Arab citizens, roughly one-fifth of Israel's population of seven million.

The loyalty oath was one of the central planks in Lieberman's campaign for parliamentary elections in February. His prominent role in Israel's new government has given it a clear hardline tilt and fuelled international concerns about Israel's willingness to pursue peace with the Palestinians.

The legislation, which must still pass several hurdles to win final approval, drew harsh criticism from opposition legislators and civil rights groups.

Mohammed Darawshe of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, which works for coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Israel, said the bills reflect "an ideology imported from dark regimes that have collapsed."

Yisrael Beitenu swept to third place in the February elections with a message that suggested Israel's Arabs were an internal threat to the country. Largely supported by Israelis who, like Lieberman, are immigrants from the former Soviet Union, it is a senior partner in the coalition government.

The party says it will present its proposed loyalty oath to a ministerial committee for preliminary approval Sunday. The legislation would make citizenship contingent on an oath of loyalty to Israel as a "Jewish, Zionist and democratic state," party spokesman Tal Nahum said.

The bill would also allow the government to revoke the citizenship of anyone who does not comply or perform some form of military or national service.

Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has yet to express a position on the matter.

The party's announcement came a day after it introduced a bill that would outlaw Arab demonstrations mourning their defeat and exile in the war surrounding Israel's establishment in 1948. The bill received preliminary approval to go ahead but still needs to pass repeated readings in parliament before becoming law.

The bill would hand three years in prison to anyone who participates in public protests or commemorations.

"I think we can reach a situation in which citizens of our country will not mark a day of mourning for the establishment of the country they live in," the legislator who sponsored the bill, Alex Miller, told army radio.

The bills do not appear to have enough support to win parliamentary approval. Nonetheless, they drew furious reactions.

Arab legislator Hana Swaid called Miller's bill "racist," saying it "eliminates the right of Palestinian Arab citizens to pronounce their identity and national feelings."

Unlike Palestinians in the neighbouring West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel's Arabs hold full citizenship rights, but they suffer from discrimination and have little identification with a country that defines itself as Jewish.

Ahmad Abdel Rahman, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said the Netanyahu administration is "flailing in all directions - in its foreign policy, the peace process and even when it comes to the rights of its own citizens."

The legislation is the latest move by the new Israeli government to anger the country's Arab citizens and neighbours. Netanyahu has taken a hard line toward the Palestinians, refusing to endorse Palestinian independence and ruling out any Israeli withdrawal from east Jerusalem. The Palestinians hope to make east Jerusalem the capital of a future independent state alongside Israel.

 
 
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