Israel's Cabinet approved a bill on Sunday that would require new non-Jewish 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.
The measure was largely symbolic, since few non-Jews apply for Israeli citizenship. Nevertheless, it 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 said the bill 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 collect generous social benefits. But they have long suffered from discrimination and second-class status. Arabs make up roughly one-fifth of Israel's 7 million people.
While the new bill would not force Arab citizens to profess their loyalty, a non-Jewish spouse of any Israeli would have to take the oath in order to receive citizenship.
Israel's Interior Ministry said several thousand people would be affected by the measure, while Adalah, an Arab advocacy group, said the number was about 25,000. The bill presumably would not affect Jewish newcomers, who automatically receive citizenship under Israel's "Law of Return."
Roni Schocken, spokesman for the Abraham Fund, a group that promotes coexistence between Israeli Jews and Arabs, said the new legislation added to what is becoming a "terrifying" atmosphere for Arabs. Efforts are under way in parliament, for instance, to punish groups that mourn the "Nakba," or catastrophe, the term Palestinians use to describe the suffering caused by Israel's founding.
"It conveys a very strong message that Arabs are second-rate citizens," Schocken said.
The bill _ which must pass a wider parliamentary vote to become law _ easily passed in the cabinet by a 22-8 margin. Only a handful of ministers, mostly from the centrist Labor Party, opposed it.
It was 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. The issue helped propel his party to a strong third place in parliamentary elections.
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni of the centrist Kadima Party criticized the measure Sunday, saying it "doesn't contribute anything" to preserving Israel's existence "as a Jewish state with equality for all."
Many Israeli Arabs openly identify with the Palestinians, and in recent years, a small number of Israeli Arabs have been charged with spying for Israel's Arab enemies.
In the most controversial proposal, Lieberman called for all citizens, including Arabs, to swear a loyalty oath to Israel as a Jewish state and wanted anyone refusing to do so to be stripped of citizenship. That measure, widely seen as anti-Arab, was struck down by a ministerial committee last year.
"Obviously this is not the end of the issue of loyalty in return for citizenship, but this is a highly important step," Lieberman said of Sunday's vote.
The vote came during an impasse in Mideast peacemaking. Just a month after they began, talks between Israelis 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 construction, 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.
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 loyalty 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.
Associated Press writher Aisha Mohammed in Jerusalem contributed to this report.