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Middle East

Israel may force citizens to vow loyalty to Jewish state

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has backed a loyalty bill that would force new non-Jewish citizens of Israel to pledge allegiance to a "Jewish and democratic state".

Critics of the bill, which will primarily affect Palestinians marrying Israelis, say it will inflame Arab and international opinion against Israel at a time when it is already facing isolation.

But Mr Netanyahu said it was "fitting" that those seeking citizenship should pledge loyalty to the Jewish state. "Israel is the Jewish people's homeland," the Prime Minister said in a statement. "It is so in its essence, in its government, its symbols, holidays and language, and that should be reflected by its Citizenship Act."

Mr Netanyahu's right-leaning Cabinet is expected to back the bill when it comes for the vote on Sunday. It will then go up before the Knesset, Israel's parliament. It will not apply to Jews seeking citizenship under the Law of Return.

The issue of loyalty dominated right-wing Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's electoral campaign, with the demand that all Israelis, including existing citizens, pledge allegiance to the Jewish state. This bill is essentially a watered-down version of that.

Left-leaning politicians have expressed concern that the loyalty oath runs roughshod over the sensitivities of the country's Arab population, and plays into the hands of Israel's critics.

Dan Meridor, Intelligence Minister and a member of Mr Netanyahu's Likud party, asked: "Why do we have to attach the word 'Jewish' to every proposal and emphasise to Arab citizens that this [country] is not theirs?"

Comprising 20 per cent of the Israeli population, Israeli Arabs fear the new oath will further undermine their equal rights while also endangering the right of return for Palestinian refugees.