Israel's Cabinet approved on Sunday a bill that would require new citizens to pledge a loyalty oath to a "Jewish and democratic" state, language that triggered charges of racism from Arab lawmakers who see it as undermining the rights of the country's Arab minority.
Few non-Jews apply for Israeli citizenship so if the bill passes into law, the legislation would not directly affect Arab citizens of Israel, who make up 20 percent of the population.
Nevertheless, it has infuriated the Arab minority and stoked tensions with Palestinians at a time when fledgling peace talks are deadlocked over Israel's refusal to extend a moratorium on new building in West Bank Jewish settlements.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the bill by saying it reflected the essence of Israel at a time when he said many in the world are trying to blur the connection between the Jewish people and their homeland.
"The state of Israel is the national state of the Jewish people and is a democratic state in which all its citizens — Jews and non-Jews — enjoy full equal rights," he said. "Whoever wants to join us, has to recognize us."
Ahmad Tibi, an Arab lawmaker, called the move a provocation.
"Its purpose is to solidify the inferior status of Arabs by law," he said. "Netanyahu and his government are limiting the sphere of democracy in Israel and deepening the prejudice against its Arab minority."
Unlike their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel's Arabs are citizens, with the right to vote, travel freely and to collect generous social benefits. But they have long suffered from second-class status, frequently suffering discrimination in housing and the job market.
While the new bill would not force them to profess their loyalty, it would require a foreign-born spouse to take the oath in order to receive citizenship.
'An important step forward'
The bill is backed by Yisrael Beitenu, a hard-line nationalist party whose leader, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, openly questioned the loyalty of Israel's Arabs during last year's election campaign.
"I think this is an important step forward. Obviously this is not the end of the issue of loyalty in return for citizenship, but this is a highly important step," he said.
The vote came during an impasse in Mideast peacemaking. Just a month after their launch at a White House ceremony, talks between Israeli and the Palestinians have become deadlocked over Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank.
Palestinians say they will not resume negotiations unless Israel extends a 10-month-old slowdown on new housing starts, which ended in late September.
Netanyahu has rejected an extension, but is considering compromises to keep the talks alive. Over the weekend, the Arab League gave the U.S., which has been mediating talks, another month to resolve the deadlock.
'A certain ideological logic'
Under heavy international pressure, Netanyahu has been sounding out key Cabinet ministers but does not appear to have a majority for extending the building restrictions.
Lieberman has been a vocal critic of extending the settlement curbs. Netanyahu's decision to bring the bill to a Cabinet vote may be a way to soften Lieberman's opposition to extending the slowdown, though officials have denied there is any connection.
The bill — which still needs to pass a wider parliamentary vote — easily passed by a 22-8 margin. Only a handful of ministers, mostly from the centrist Labor Party, opposed it.
Isaac Herzog, a minister with the centrist Labor Party, said he opposed the bill because it would create unnecessary domestic tensions and further damage Israel's standing when it is under fire internationally.
"It is unnecessary and doesn't serve the interests of the state of Israel," said Herzog. "It has a certain ideological logic behind it but has adverse effect on Israel's image and its spirit of true democracy."
Israel is now pushing another sensitive matter: its demand that the Palestinians recognize it as the state of the Jewish people. The Palestinians have refused to do so for fear that it will undermine the status of Israeli Arabs and undercut the claims of Palestinian refugees.