How Israel's political hodgepodge helped end its contentious citizenship law

·6-min read

A controversial Israeli law barring Palestinians who marry Israeli citizens from obtaining citizenship or residency expired last night after Naftali Bennett, the new Israeli prime minister, failed to gather a majority supporting its extension, due to an extraordinary political jumble, with left voting right and right voting left. FRANCE 24 explains what the law is and the circumstances that led to its expiration.

The early-morning vote on Tuesday, which resulted in a 59-59 tie and brought an end to the so-called citizenship law, was Bennett’s first defeat as prime minister in the Knesset (parliament).

It was not the left that blocked the law’s extension, as might have been expected, but rather a surprise defection by a rebel Knesset member from Bennett’s own ultranationalist Yamina faction who, at the last minute, joined Benjamin Netanyahu and the right-wing opposition to vote against a law that had been championed by the right for 18 years.

It was “a premeditated, direct blow to national security”, Bennett said after the vote. He accused Netanyahu of playing “petty politics at the expense of the citizens of Israel” and said the Likud party would “owe Israelis a long reckoning” for its actions.

What is the citizenship law?

The Citizenship and Entry Law was originally passed in 2003 as a temporary security statute at the height of the so-called second intifada. Before it was passed, Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip who married Israelis and wished to live in Israel with their families faced the same bureaucratic complications as any foreigner settling down in the country.

During the intifada, Israel’s security services warned that terrorist groups could exploit family unification procedures to infiltrate Israel and commit attacks. Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza were perceived as a potential threat and their family unification rights were suspended by law.

Over the next 18 years, under a succession of right-wing governments, the law was extended by the Knesset every year.

Critics of the law say it is discriminatory against Israel’s Arab citizens, who make up around 20 percent of the population, and that the true motivation behind it is not security but the desire to preserve a Jewish majority in Israel.

Proponents of the law say both security and demographic considerations are good reasons to support it.

“There’s no need to hide the essence of this law. It’s one of the tools intended to ensure a Jewish majority in the State of Israel. Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, and our goal is to maintain its Jewish majority,” Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Bennett’s centrist coalition partner, tweeted Monday. “In addition, the law is important for security. The Shin Bet [internal security service] has presented data that shows that failing to pass this law will serve a significant blow to Israel’s security,” he continued.

As a result of Tuesday’s vote, instead of being subjected to a sweeping ban on receiving citizenship or residency rights, Palestinians married to Israeli citizens will be able to apply for residency at the interior ministry, as other foreigners do, and if it is denied, the ministry will have to justify its decision.

Right votes left and left votes right

The new Israeli government is a coalition of ideologically divergent parties, from Bennett’s Yamina party on the far right, through Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid, to Labour and Meretz on the left, and, for the first time, it also includes the United Arab List, or Raam, an Islamist party. These unlikely bedfellows joined forces last month with the shared goal of removing Netanyahu from power, and that is the cement that holds them together.

Netanyahu, who regularly derides the coalition, referring to it as “the temporary government” has vowed to do everything to bring it down, and the vote to extend the citizenship law was his first opportunity.

After consistently voting to extend the law since 2003, and despite planning to present it for renewal himself just before losing the last election, Netanyahu this time instructed members of his right-wing Likud party to vote against it.

“As important as this law is, the importance of toppling the government is greater. This isn’t any law. It’s a law that exposes the government’s fault line,” Netanyahu told his party members on Sunday, according to the Israeli news website N12.

On the other hand, just as the right has always supported the law, Israeli Arab parties have strongly opposed it, as did Meretz, which twice filed a petition to the supreme court to have it overturned.

In a move likely intended to pressure Meretz and Raam to get on board despite their misgivings, Bennett declared on Monday that the vote on the law would also be a vote of confidence in the government. The manoeuvre worked: Mossi Raz, a Knesset member of the Meretz party, explained that although the party considers the law racist and discriminatory, it was now compelled to support it.

“If 61 Knesset members would have voted against the law, the government would have fallen, and a transition government would have been instated immediately, led by Arye Deri [of the ultra-orthodox Shas party, a Netanyahu ally],” Raz told FRANCE 24 on Wednesday.

“The law got 59 votes – had just two Meretz members opposed it, the government would have fallen, and of course we didn’t want this. We’re a part of this government and are committed to it.”

Agreement to seek humanitarian solutions

Another reason Meretz and Raam agreed to support the law was because a compromise had been reached during overnight negotiations before the vote, according to which the law would be extended by only six months instead of a year, and a dedicated committee would work on longer-term humanitarian solutions for Palestinians already living in Israel with no residency rights.

“People think the law is simply about giving citizenship to anyone who marries an Israeli. It’s not as simple as that,” Raz explained. “One of the central problems that were at the basis of our negotiations is that there are 13,000 Palestinians who are married to Israelis and are already living in Israel, but have no residency status, which means they can’t fly abroad out of Israel, they have a hard time getting visas, they can’t get a driver’s licence, they don’t have health insurance and many other problems."

As part of the compromise, Raam agreed that two of its MKs, Mansour Abbas and Walid Taha, would vote for extending the law, and two others would abstain.

For Bennett this meant the coalition would have a narrow majority of 60-58. However, a member of Bennett’s own ultranationalist Yamina faction, MK Amichai Chikli, switched sides in the last minute and voted with Netanyahu and the opposition against the law, bringing the vote to a 59-59 tie, thereby ending the law’s 18-year run.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, of Bennett’s Yamina party, said on Twitter on Tuesday she was “ashamed” of the behaviour of the right-wing opposition parties and accused them of endangering Israel’s security. “Make no mistake: the wanton behaviour of the Likud … brought down the citizenship law and will bring on 15,000 new citizenship requests. Contrary to all the ‘ideological’ claims on the right, for whom lying has become a second language, the law was not changed, not even by a comma – the exact same version was to be extended for six months."

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