Bennett said to mull sanctions on rebel Yamina MK Chikli

Coalition casts Netanyahu bloc as Joint List’s ‘useful idiot’ after Knesset loss

As government fails to extend Palestinian family reunification law, Yamina’s Shaked says it’s ‘a victory for post-Zionism’; opposition says ‘corrupt’ deal had to be voted down

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (L) speaks with Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi after a Knesset vote rejected an extension of the Palestinian family reunification law, in Jerusalem, July 6, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (L) speaks with Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi after a Knesset vote rejected an extension of the Palestinian family reunification law, in Jerusalem, July 6, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Coalition parties reacted furiously Tuesday morning after they failed to pass an extension of the contentious Palestinian family reunification law, accusing right-wing opposition parties of serving as a “useful idiot” for the predominantly Arab Joint List, granting it a “post-Zionist victory.”

The opposition, led by former premier Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile argued that a compromise deal reached overnight had been dangerous and had to be voted down, also claiming that the saga highlighted the problematic nature of a government that relies on left-wing and Islamist parties.

The early morning vote — after an all-night debate — ended in a tie, and thus the extension did not pass, after a rebel member of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party voted against the measure. Fifty-nine lawmakers supported the motion and 59 opposed it (two abstained), meaning the law is set to expire later Tuesday.

Underlining the surreal array of forces in Israel’s coalition and opposition, the Knesset defeat marked a humiliation for the right, center, left and Arab Ra’am parties in the government, and saw the right-wing Likud and Religious Zionism parties — which firmly support the legislation in principle but are working incessantly to weaken the coalition — celebrating alongside the MKs from the Arab-dominated Joint List, who bitterly oppose the law.

Bennett early Tuesday had declared that he regarded the vote as a motion of confidence in the government, after reaching a compromise agreement with the coalition’s Islamist Ra’am party and the left-wing Meretz and Labor 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 to muster 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 who marry an Israeli, was 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’s assessment is 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 [of Palestinians who become Israeli citizens or residents] by terrorist organizations, and their high potential to act as lone terrorists.”

The deadline for reextending the legislation is midnight on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (center) and ministers during a Knesset discussion on the Palestinian family reunification law in Jerusalem, July 6, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The compromise agreement included — in addition to reducing the proposed extension to just six months — 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.

At the moment of truth, two of Ra’am’s four lawmakers supported the bill and two others abstained, but Yamina MK Amichai Chikli voted against, joining the opposition led by Benjamin 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, 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, seemingly giving it a cushion.

Bennett was reportedly considering formally declaring that Chikli has broken away from his Knesset faction, which would mean he cannot run in the next elections as part of Yamina or as part of any current Knesset party.

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.

Yamina MK Amichai Chikli at the Knesset on June 22, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Reacting to the vote, Yamina slammed the right-wing opposition parties and charged that they had joined forces with the predominantly Arab Joint List.

“The opposition, led by Bibi and [Joint List MK Ahmad] Tibi, didn’t manage to topple the government, but together they dealt a severe blow to Israel’s security,” the party said in a statement, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname.

“This is petty politics at the expense of Israeli citizens. This is the reason they’re in the opposition, and that’s where they’ll stay. For Bibi, if he’s not in power, the state can go up in flames,” the statement added.

Yamina’s No. 2, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, decried the vote as “a big victory for post-Zionism.”

“Whoever didn’t see the celebrations by Likud and Religious Zionism members together with [Joint List MKs] Ofer Cassif and Sami Abou Shehadeh hasn’t witnessed madness in their life,” Shaked wrote in a tweet. “Together they rejected the citizenship law, an important law for Israel’s security and [Jewish] character.”

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked speaks during a Yamina faction meeting at the Knesset on July 5, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin, a former Likud lawmaker and now an MK for the coalition’s right-wing New Hope party, said Netanyahu’s bloc had become the Joint List’s “useful idiot.”

Recalling recent Likud election campaign slogans casting the vote as a choice between “Bibi or Tibi,” Elkin said: “Today a new alliance has been formed: Bibi and Tibi.”

Yesh Atid faction chairman Boaz Toporovsky said: “The Likud party, which paralyzed Israel for two years, has again favored politics over Israeli interests.”

Netanyahu’s Likud party feted the achievement.

“A corrupt deal reached in the middle of the night between Bennett, [Foreign Minister Yair] Lapid and Shaked and Ra’am and Meretz has collapsed due to a determined battle waged by the opposition, led by Netanyahu,” the statement said. “Bennett and Lapid wanted to buy two Ra’am votes in exchange for allowing thousands of [Palestinian] people to enter, endangering Israel’s Zionist identity.”

Bezalel Smotrich’s far-right Religious Zionism party similarly slammed the compromise deal, alleging that Bennett and Shaked had “sold out the State of Israel” and “agreed to grant Palestinians the ‘right of return’ in several installments.” It blasted Yamina for trying to reach agreements with “terror supporters” rather than with the opposition.

Smotrich castigated Shaked, a former ally political ally, as a former prime ministerial candidate who had become “a dishrag… who sold out the Zionist enterprise to the supporters of terrorism.”

Shas leader Aryeh Deri of the opposition hailed the thwarting of “a law full of holes that would have endangered the state’s security.”

Shaked later rejected the opposition’s criticism of the compromise deal, arguing that “the law wasn’t changed even a bit” and that the deal had featured the same concessions Deri himself previously agreed to as interior minister — “upgrading the status of 1,600 adults who have been staying in Israel for many years.”

Opposition members rejoice after a Knesset vote rejected an extension of the Palestinian family reunification law, in Jerusalem, July 6, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Don’t be confused — the irresponsible conduct by Likud and Smotrich has shot down the citizenship law and will lead to 15,000 citizenship requests,” she said. “Tonight Netanyahu and Smotrich again chose petty and ugly politics, and to hell with the country.”

In a statement, Ra’am party chief Mansour Abbas said that his party “rejects the law banning family unification,” despite the fact that he himself voted for its extension.

Abbas lamented that the proposed compromise did not go through, saying that Ra’am had reached a “good agreement” with Bennett and Shaked. In exchange, Abbas said, the Islamist party would have abstained during the critical vote. But after Ra’am saw that the vote had become a motion of confidence in the government, Abbas said, he and Taha decided to vote for the law because otherwise “the government would have fallen.” (In fact, a separate motion of no confidence in the government would have been required to bring it down, and the opposition does not have the 61 votes needed to so.)

Despite his statement, it is unclear how much Abbas was in control of his own party during the tempestuous vote. Ra’am parliamentarian Mazen Ghanaim had already rejected the compromise proposal well before the last-minute vote, and his colleague Said al-Harumi was said to have done the same.

“This is an enormous victory, because of the pain and injustice I’ve suffered personally for the last 16 years, and which others have suffered for even longer,” said Acre resident Tayseer Khatib, whose wife Lana is a West Bank Palestinian.

Khatib, who has become an activist on behalf of the Palestinian families affected by the law, had rejected any of the proposed compromises on the matter as unjust.

“From the start, our demand was the fall of the law, although we now know there are other battles coming,” Khatib said, referring to the Likud plan to propose a much more restrictive citizenship law next week.

The Mossawa Center Arab rights group celebrated the fact that the “racist” reunification law wasn’t extended for the first time in 18 years, calling it “a symbolic victory in the battle against racism and arrogance directed against families out of national motivations.

“We hope the right to live as an Arab family will be preserved as the basic right of every person,” the group said.

Tal Schneider contributed to this report.

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