Prime Minister Naftali Bennett reacted Tuesday to his government’s failure to pass a Knesset motion renewing a law that bars Palestinian family reunification, accusing the opposition of “purposefully and directly” damaging Israel’s security.
Meanwhile, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, like Bennett a member of the Yamina party, announced that she would put the bill up for another vote on Tuesday, hoping to clinch a majority this time around.
In a major blow to Israel’s fledgling coalition, the Knesset earlier in the day failed to approve an extension of the contentious law, after Amichai Chikli, a rebel member of Yamina, voted against the measure and two members of the Islamist Ra’am coalition party abstained.
The early morning vote — after an all-night debate — ended in a tie, with 59 lawmakers supporting the motion and 59 opposing it, meaning the law will expire at midnight Tuesday unless extended in a new vote.
Bennett had declared that he regarded the vote as a motion of confidence in the government, after reaching a compromise agreement with Ra’am and the left-wing Meretz and Labor parties to extend the law by six months instead of for a year. “Whoever votes in favor [of the legislation] is expressing confidence in the government. Whoever votes against is expressing no confidence in the government,” Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy said on Bennett’s behalf.
However, even if the opposition had mustered an absolute majority of 61 MKs in the vote, the government would have remained intact. To bring down the coalition, the opposition would need 61 or more votes backing a specific, named candidate for prime minister, in a formal motion of no confidence in the government.
The family reunification law, which blocks the automatic granting of Israeli citizenship or residency to Palestinians on the basis of marriage to an Israeli, was first enacted in 2003, and has been extended annually.
The law was initially passed after some 130,000 Palestinians entered Israel via family reunification between 1993 and 2003, including during the Second Intifada onslaught of Palestinian terrorism. The stated prime concern at the time was that some Palestinians gaining Israeli status would engage in terrorism, but there was also a demographic goal: The security establishment assesses that some 200,000 Palestinians would gain Israeli citizenship or residency each decade were it not for this legislation, Channel 12 reported.
The Shin Bet security agency, in an opinion widely quoted in Hebrew media in recent days, has stated that “the primary danger posed by family reunifications stems from the potential recruitment by terrorist organizations [of Palestinians who become Israeli citizens or residents], and their high potential to act as lone terrorists.”
The compromise agreement with Ra’am, Labor and Meretz was put forward overnight by Labor lawmaker Ibtisam Mara’ana and entailed reducing the proposed extension to just six months instead of a year, issuing some 1,600 Palestinian families with A-5 residency visas, and establishing a committee to find humanitarian solutions to the other 9,700 Palestinians residing in Israel on military-issued stay permits.
Bennett, speaking Tuesday afternoon at a press conference launching a national plan to reduce regulation and bureaucracy, said: “The opposition last night purposefully and directly harmed the state’s security. Out of some sort of spite and frustration, they damaged the country.”
Listing the names of opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi and Chikli, Bennett charged that “everyone who voted against the citizenship law… chose petty politics over the benefit of Israeli citizens, and they will long have to answer to the public over what they’ve done.”
Bennett vowed to “fix the matter and present the public with good solutions.”
Regarding Chikli, the premier said: “I think he’s confused. An hour before the vote he said, ‘Under no circumstances will I vote to lower the gates and enable mass entry of Palestinians.’
“Netanyahu has personal issues he has to deal with, but he is dragging many good people after him who won’t remember this night fondly. Not [Nir] Barkat, not [Avi] Dichter, not Israel Katz. Good people who are forced against their ideology to knowingly harm Israel’s security.”
Chikli joined the opposition led by Netanyahu in voting against the motion. While the right-wing Likud and Religious Zionism opposition parties support the law in principle, they voted against extending it, along with the ultra-Orthodox parties and the Joint List, in order to embarrass the government.
Chikli voted last month against the establishment of the new coalition, which spans right-wing, centrist, left-wing and Islamist parties and has a razor-thin Knesset majority, even though it made his own party leader Bennett prime minister. But he subsequently said he would vote with the coalition on most matters.
After the vote, Chikli said his decision to block the extension was due to the compromise deal: “Tonight we received proof of the problematic nature of a government that doesn’t have a distinct Zionist majority — one that starts the night with a law extension for a year and ends it with an extension for half a year, that starts with 1,500 permits and ends with over 3,000.
“Israel needs a functioning Zionist government, not a mishmash that depends on Ra’am and Meretz votes,” Chikli said.
He later added that had the original extension motion gone up for a vote — “without capitulating to Meretz and Ra’am” — he would have supported it.
Responding to Bennett’s direct criticism of him, Chikli tweeted Tuesday afternoon that the prime minister was the “confused” one, not him.
“Dear Naftali, you’ve gotten lost in your navigation,” he wrote. “It is not too late to recalculate a new route and work to establish a [right-wing] government just as you promised.”
Sources in the party are weighing officially designating Chikli as a deserter from the party, which would come with sanctions.
Calls were mounting Tuesday within Yamina to announce that Chikli had broken away from his faction and declare him an official deserter, which would bar him from running for reelection in any existing party. However, others in the party are hesitant about making the move, seeking to preserve Chikli as a potential supporter in a key vote on the state budget, which the government must pass to survive.
Yamina MK Shirly Pinto told the Kan public broadcaster that Chikli had proved he is loyal to Netanyahu above any ideology and “is looking for his next job and everything Netanyahu promised him.
“We definitely should declare he has broken away,” she said. “This isn’t conduct befitting a coalition member and this harms us all. We’ll manage to find solutions for the state budget but we can’t let such a lawmaker, whose every word can’t be trusted, roam freely with such power. We need to sanction him.”
Likud responded to Bennett by denouncing the prime minister’s “insolence.”
“He’s talking about damaging national security? Someone who formed a weak coalition that relies on the votes of the extreme left and post-Zionist parties should not pretend to care about Israel’s security,” Netanyahu’s party said in a statement.
“Bennett preferred to negotiate with the far-left and the anti-Zionists, just to avoid talking with Likud and the right-wing parties,” it charged. “He chose to ignore us. Instead, he and Shaked continued selling out the Land of Israel.”
A senior coalition source told The Times of Israel on Tuesday that Bennett and Shaked’s behavior “was amateurish and went down to the wire unnecessarily.”
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the very fact that a compromise was reached is “proof that [coalition parties] want to work together and preserve [the government].”
The source maintained that while the reunification law was shot down, “the coalition has gotten stronger due to Likud’s strong attack.”
Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.