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Israeli legislation raises issue of loyalty

An ultranationalist party introduces a bill requiring an oath of allegiance to Israel, and another barring the traditional Arab day of mourning over the Jewish state's birth.

May 26, 2009|Richard Boudreaux

JERUSALEM — The ultranationalist party led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has unveiled two bills targeting Israel's Arab minority, one that would outlaw the Arabs' traditional day of mourning over the birth of Israel and another that would require an oath of allegiance to the Jewish state.

Both bills face opposition within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's governing coalition and uncertain prospects for approval in the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

But in the meantime, they are provoking vigorous debate over free expression, internal security and Israel's sense of international isolation.

Palestinian Arabs who remained in Israel after its independence and their descendants make up about one-fifth of the citizenry. Hundreds of thousands of other Arabs fled or were driven into exile in the war surrounding Israel's founding in 1948. Each May 15, Arabs inside and outside Israel gather for public expressions of grief over what they call the Nakba, or catastrophe.

A bill approved by a Cabinet committee Sunday would end Israel's tolerance for these annual demonstrations on its soil, making participation in them punishable by up to three years in prison.

Lieberman's party, Israel Is Our Home, announced Monday that it had prepared a separate bill requiring an oath of allegiance from anyone applying for a national identity card, a document essential for almost any transaction with the state, the school system or financial institutions. The oath would profess loyalty to Israel as "a Jewish, Zionist and democratic state."

The bill does not explicitly target Arab citizens but stems from Lieberman's campaign message that they pose an internal security threat. It would allow the government to revoke the citizenship of anyone who refuses to perform some kind of military or national service.

Parliament defeated a similar initiative by Lieberman's party in 2007, but its campaign on the loyalty issue propelled Israel Is Our Home to a strong third-place finish in this year's election.

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

Arab citizens are exempt from military service, which is compulsory for Jews, and few volunteer for it.

Arabs, a small minority in the parliament, reacted with fury to both pieces of legislation.

Jamal Zahalka, head of the Balad party, called the attempt to outlaw Nakba demonstrations "a crazy bill by a crazy government." He said the Jews "drove away our people and now they want to deny us even our cry of pain. This is record-breaking Israeli chutzpah."

Alex Miller, a member of Lieberman's party, said it would be inconceivable for Americans to hold protests against their country's independence. "It's time for us to be proud of our country," he said.

Dissent within the right-leaning governing coalition could trip up the Nakba bill, which faces several hurdles in parliament.

After it cleared a Cabinet committee, 8 votes to 3, three lawmakers from Netanyahu's conservative Likud party asked the Justice Ministry to overturn the decision. One of them, Michael Eitan, said Israel must combat security threats "not by limiting freedom of expression, but rather through belief in the justice of our path."

"This is the last thing this government should be sending out as a message to the democratic world," declared Avishai Braverman of the left-leaning Labor Party, a junior partner in the coalition. He said Israel was isolated enough by Netanyahu's refusal to endorse the goal of an independent Palestinian state.

Netanyahu has taken no position on either bill. In assembling his coalition, his party rejected Lieberman's demand to make a loyalty oath requirement part of the government program. Instead, a written agreement by the two parties said the judiciary should be given power to withdraw government assistance from anyone found to have engaged in terrorism or espionage.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish members of the ruling coalition might also oppose a loyalty oath because some of their constituents object to the establishment of a Jewish state before the arrival of the Messiah.

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boudreaux@latimes.com

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