The Israeli Cabinet on Sunday approved the submission of a controversial bill to parliament that would require new citizens to pledge loyalty to Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state."

JERUSALEM — The Israeli Cabinet on Sunday approved the submission of a controversial bill to parliament that would require new citizens to pledge loyalty to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.”

The language echoed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish state.

But critics called the measure anti-democratic and discriminatory because it would not apply to Jewish immigrants seeking Israel citizenship and appeared chiefly aimed at Palestinians applying for Israeli citizenship after marrying Arab Israelis.

No other groups in Israel, including soldiers, lawmakers and the prime minister, are required to pledge allegiance to a “Jewish and democratic state.”

    Most Read Stories

“This proposal pokes an unnecessary finger in the eye of the Arab minority,” said Ahmed Tibi, a leading Arab-Israeli lawmaker. “The message it sends to the Arab minority is that they are second-, third- and fourth-class citizens.”

The Cabinet has discussed loyalty oaths in the past but never approved one.

The issue re-emerged last week amid stalled peace talks with the Palestinians. Many say Netanyahu agreed to support the proposed law as a gesture to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose right-wing Yisrael Beitenu party has long lobbied for it.

Left-wing political leaders said Netanyahu may be trying to soften opposition among conservatives if he decides to renew a West Bank construction freeze. The U.S. is pushing for a renewed freeze to keep Palestinians from quitting the talks.

Netanyahu has insisted that as part of a future peace agreement with Palestinians, they must recognize Israel as the Jewish state.

Palestinian leaders have rejected the demand, saying it undermines the claims of Palestinian refugees to return to their former homes in Israel and calls into question the rights of Israeli Arabs, who make up 20 percent of Israel’s population.

Civil-rights advocates in Israel said the new language undermined Israeli democracy.

In a letter to Netanyahu, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said the pledge of allegiance to a Jewish state “sends the humiliating and discriminatory message to non-Jewish Israeli citizens, especially to those non-Jews seeking naturalization, that the state does not belong to them.”

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who voted against the bill along with other ministers of the Labor Party, insisted the pledge include a reference to Israel’s declaration of independence, which guarantees equality to all citizens.