|Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's foreign minister, has been a vocal supporter of a 'loyalty law' [Reuters]
Right-wing politicians have welcomed plans to introduce an oath of loyalty to Israel as a "Jewish" state for anyone wanting to become a citizen, a move likely to further jeopardise direct peace talks with the Palestinians.
The controversial move would amend the current citizenship law to include the phrase: "I swear to respect the laws of the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state," Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, said on Wednesday.
Some commentators have suggested that the proposal, which will be put to a vote in cabinet on Sunday, is designed to persuade Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's ultra-nationalist foreign minister, to agree to an extension of a moratorium on new settlement building in the occupied West Bank.
Direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, are currently facing collapse due to a refusal by Israel to extend the 10-month freeze.
Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party had made the oath the centrepiece of its campaign in the 2009 general elections, which saw it become the second largest party in the governing coalition after Netanyahu's Likud.
"I praise the prime minister for the decision to go along with this legislation," Lieberman, who wants a future Israeli state to incorporate the illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank, said on Thursday.
"Everyone who wants to receive Israeli citizenship must swear loyalty to the state of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state."
The AFP news agency reported that sources within Lieberman's party had denied that the move would have any impact on its position on settlement expansion.
Dan Meridor, a Likud party member, said the law would exclude 1.5 million Palestinians who are citizens of Israel and will create a rift between them and the state.
Arab MPs in the Israeli Knesset also criticised the move, saying it specifically targets Palestinians looking to gain Israeli citizenship after marrying an Arab living in Israel.
"The addition to the citizenship law is entirely racist and transparent," Mohammed Barak, an Arab legislator, said.
"Israel's law books have long been a guide for some of the most discriminatory and racist regimes in the world and in history."
Recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is one of Netanyahu's key demands in any eventual peace deal with the Palestinians, but they have repeatedly rejected this as it would amount to an effective renunciation of the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
Peace talks push
With the US-brokered talks seeming under threat, Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, has called on Israeli and Palestinian leaders to sit down together again.
"I urge Israel to restore settlement restraint under its road map obligations and I urge Arab leaders meeting in Sirte this week to keep doors open and support [Palestinian] President Abbas."
"Negotiations should move forward intensively, focused on resolving core issues, not talks for the sake of talks."
However, Abbas has strong backing from Palestinian leadership and public opinion to quit the peace talks after US efforts appeared to fail to resolve the settlements issue.
Washington has urged Arab ministers to back the talks rather than encourage Abbas to pull out.
"What we want out of the Arab League is continued support for direct negotiations that we have just launched," Philip Crowley, the US state department spokesman, said.
"We are intensively engaged. We are in touch with the Palestinians. We are in touch with the Israelis. We are in touch with countries that will be participating in the Arab League meeting on Friday," Crowley said.
"Our message is clear... We are at a critical stage in this process. We want to see the negotiations continue. We don't want to see the parties step away from this process," he said.
The Palestinians view the presence of 500,000 Israelis in more than 120 settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem as a major threat to the viability of their future state and see the freezing of settlement construction as a key test of Israel's seriousness about the talks.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies