May 31, 2009 / 4:04 PM / 10 years ago

Israeli cabinet rejects proposed loyalty oath

JERUSALEM, May 31 (Reuters) - Israel’s cabinet rejected on Sunday a proposal to require that residents swear loyalty to the Jewish state, dealing a setback to a measure critics said could have curbed the rights of Arab citizens.

The measure, proposed last week by the ultra-right Yisrael Beitenu Party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, may still be introduced privately in Parliament, though without government backing its chances for approval were uncertain.

A draft introduced by lawmaker David Rotem called for all Israelis to swear allegiance to Israel as a "Jewish, Zionist and democratic state" before receiving a national identity document the law requires all Israelis over 16 to carry.

The bill also would have forced all citizens to either serve in the army or perform a period of national service.

Israeli liberals had denounced the measure as liable to restrict the rights of minority Arab citizens, most of whom are not drafted for military duty that is compulsory for Jews.

Arab citizens make up about a fifth of Israel’s population and are descended from those who remained while hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled what is now Israel or were driven out during a 1948 war over Israel’s founding.

Jamal Zahalka, an Israeli Arab lawmaker, hailed the vote by the Israeli cabinet’s law committee as "an achievement in the fight against fascism and racism", Israeli media reports said.

Yisrael Beitenu spokesman Tal Nahum called the results "very regrettable" and a vote "against strengthening Israel’s standing as a Jewish state". In a statement, he vowed the party would "continue to fight against expressions of disloyalty" in Israel.

A party official said no decision had been made as to whether to introduce the bill in parliament privately, where without government backing it would need to pass an extra vote or four rather than three in order to become law.

Israel’s parliament has a right-wing majority since a February election held after a 22-day offensive in the Gaza Strip in which 1,400 Palestinians and 14 Israelis were killed.

Last week lawmakers gave preliminary approval to a measure that would outlaw any public challenges to deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and make it punishable by a sentence of up to a year in prison.

The cabinet has separately approved a measure to outlaw public displays of mourning over Israel’s birth which Palestinians call "naqba", an Arabic word for catastrophe.

(Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Michael Roddy)

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