The Israeli government on Sunday threw out a proposal aimed at minority Arabs to require an oath of loyalty to Israel as a Jewish state or risk losing their citizenship, dealing a blow to the country's ultranationalist foreign minister, who spearheaded the proposal.
Avigdor Lieberman, a rising force in Israeli politics, made the proposal a central plank of his election campaign last February. The message, which sought to play on the perceived disloyalty of Israel's Arab citizens, helped propel his Yisrael Beitenu Party to a strong third place finish in the parliamentary vote.
Lieberman's electoral success was seen as evidence of growing polarization between Israel's Jewish and Arab citizens. Many Israeli Arabs, once considering themselves bridges between Israel and the Arab world, have become alienated in the Jewish state and side openly with the Palestinians in their struggle against Israel.
Arabs make up about one-fifth of Israel's 7 million citizens.
The draft would have allowed the Interior Ministry to strip even native Israelis of their nationality if they refused to swear allegiance to the Jewish state and "its symbols and values" and profess their willingness to perform military service.
Cabinet Secretary Tzvi Hauser said the proposal was rejected 8-3 by a ministerial committee on legislation. With the exception of Yisrael Beitenu, all parties in the government, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud, opposed the proposal. Netanyahu has not commented on the draft.
Many Israelis have described the proposal as racist. It also met resistance from the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party because it could have affected ultra-Orthodox Jews, most of whom are currently exempt from military service on religious grounds and would not be eager to endorse the symbols and values of the state, which they consider too secular.
Unlike Palestinians in the neighboring West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel's Arabs hold full citizenship rights, but they have suffered from discrimination for decades and have little identification with a country that defines itself as Jewish.
The most obvious difference between the two communities is military service. Jewish Israelis and Druse Arabs are required to perform three years in the military. Other Arabs are not, though small numbers volunteer.
Approval of the bill could have been embarrassing at a time when Israel is under U.S. pressure to make conciliatory moves toward the Palestinians and renew peace efforts with the broader Arab and Muslim world.
Arab lawmaker Jamal Zahalka praised Sunday's decision "as a victory for the Arab public and for sanity."
Yisrael Beitenu can still try to get it passed into law as an independent initiative, although it appears unlikely to garner majority support in the legislature.
"Yisrael Beitenu will continue to act for Israel's basis as a Jewish, Zionist and democratic state and will fight against disloyalty and the negative exploitation of Israeli democracy," the party said after the vote.
The party is also sponsoring a separate proposal making it illegal for Arabs to mourn the "catastrophe", the term Palestinians use to describe their defeat and exile of hundreds of thousands in the war that surrounded Israel's founding.
That bill has received preliminary approval to go ahead but still needs to pass repeated readings in parliament before becoming law.
It would mandate a three-year prison sentence for anyone who participates in public protests or commemorations mourning the establishment of the state of Israel. The legislation has been criticized as a blow to free speech.