Hard-line party’s bill calls for Israelis to pledge loyalty

jerusalem  |  An ultranationalist party headed by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said this week it has prepared legislation linking citizenship to an oath of allegiance, in what amounts to a threat to the country’s Arabs to swear loyalty to the Jewish state or risk severe punishment.

The revelation of the bill followed a separate proposal a day earlier, on May 24, 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 Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party focus on the perceived disloyalty of the country’s Arab citizens, roughly one-fifth of Israel’s population of 7 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 hard-line tilt and fueled international concerns about Israel’s willingness to pursue peace with the Palestinians.

Avigdor Lieberman

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, the party 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 on Sunday, May 31. 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.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as of midweek, had 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 of “al Nakba” (the catastrophe).

“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 lawmaker 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 lawmaker 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 neighboring 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 neighbors. 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.

On May 24, a Palestinian official encouraged Palestinians to buy homes in Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem as a way of strengthening the Arab presence in the disputed city. Hatem Abdel Qader, minister of Jerusalem affairs, said that buying homes was “a means of defending Jerusalem.”

Israel captured east Jerusalem in the Six-Day War in 1967 and immediately annexed the land, a move never recognized by the international community. A number of large Jewish neighborhoods now stand in east Jerusalem. Some Arab families have begun moving into Jewish neighborhoods, where municipal services tend to be better.

On May 25, Israeli aircraft scattered leaflets over the Gaza Strip warning residents to stay away from the border, saying they risk being shot. The military has scattered similar warning leaflets in the past.