Coalition scrambles for way to extend ban on Palestinian family reunification

Amid crisis, deal with Ra’am said to be proposed on law that bars West Bankers with Israeli spouse from obtaining citizenship; Likud set to oppose move, hoping to split coalition

Israel's new government led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, in the Knesset, June 13, 2021. (Noam Moscowitz /Knesset)
Israel's new government led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, in the Knesset, June 13, 2021. (Noam Moscowitz /Knesset)

The new governing coalition is working to reach a compromise on the extension of a 2003 law that bars granting citizenship to Palestinians who marry Israeli citizens, after it was forced to cancel a committee vote on the bill last week when it realized it did not have the necessary majority.

The new government is internally divided over the issue, with Minister of Regional Cooperation Issawi Frej of Meretz, Labor’s Ibtisam Mara’ana, and the Arab Ra’am party opposing the measure, which is currently rescheduled for a Knesset committee vote on Monday.

Family reunification in Israel typically involves an Israeli citizen requesting citizenship for his or her non-Israeli spouse. Most unification applications are submitted by Arab Israelis on behalf of a Palestinian spouse living in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip.

But the 2003 measure, passed due to concerns it was being abused by members of terror groups to gain access to Israel, put limits on the process, making it harder for Palestinians to gain Israeli citizenship or residency through marriage. The controversial law has been extended every year since, usually with strong backing from Likud and other right-wing parties.

Critics call the law racist and say it is an attempt by Israel to keep the number of Arab citizens down. Proponents say without the law, tens of thousands and potentially hundreds of thousands of Palestinians could submit requests to become Israeli citizens every year.

Meretz MK Mossi Raz said Saturday that “another law” will likely come up for a vote, but said he doesn’t know what it will be or how he would vote.

“They are working on a compromise,” he told Channel 12 news.

On Wednesday, coalition chairman Idit Silman (Yamina) was forced to pull the measure from the agenda of the Knesset Arrangements Committee upon realizing that she did not have enough votes for it to pass without the backing of coalition party Ra’am. The Islamist faction opposes the law in its current state and has refused to vote for its passage.

The Kan public broadcaster reported that the government was working on a compromise with Ra’am in which it would present the party with a series of reforms to the law in a bid to get its members to abstain.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, left, and Ra’am leader MK Mansour Abbas, seated, at the swearing in of the new Israeli government, in the Knesset on June 13, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90

“We are in talks regarding how we can make adjustments and facilitations in the Citizenship Law. So far there are no agreements,” Iman Khatib-Yasin, the deputy leader of Ra’am, told Kan on Friday.

Frej and Mara’ana, both Arab Israelis, have also said they cannot support extending the law, further complicating matters for the new government, which has a razor-thin majority over the opposition in the Knesset.

“A way out of this mess must be found,” Frej told Kan news on Saturday.

Mara’ana said Sunday that a number of changes to the law would have to be introduced, including retroactive recognition of those who had applied for citizenship before the 2003 freeze, for her to consider supporting it

Palestinians and supporters demonstrating in front of then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office, against the law limiting Israeli-Palestinian family reunification on April 14, 2013. (Sliman Khader/FLASH90)

Though right-wing opposition parties back extending the law in principle, they have refused to step in to do so in the hopes of embarrassing the new government.

According to Channel 13 news, there is a debate within Likud on whether to support the law if it’s brought to a vote this week, with Netanyahu and MK Tzachi Hanegbi opposing taking any steps that would bail out the coalition. Others, including MK Ofir Akunis, said they would support it, while MK Miki Zohar that his party was prepared to support the law if the government backs his legislation to legalize dozens of wildcat outposts in the West Bank. The majority of parties in the unity government oppose such measures expanding Israeli presence beyond the Green Line.

Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site, reported Sunday that Netanyahu has instructed Likud to vote against the bill.

Last week, Defense Minister Benny Gantz publicly urged opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu to back the extension of the law. Gantz said the opposition’s plans to torpedo the extension will harm Israeli security.

Benjamin Netanyahu leads a meeting of right-wing opposition parties supporting him, at the Knesset, June 14, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

In a likely effort to embarrass the new coalition by highlighting its internal differences on the issue, however, a group of parties in the opposition led by Likud has introduced a bill to change the Law of Return — which allows Jews and those whose parent or grandparent is Jewish to get citizenship — and to revise Israeli immigration policies so as to permanently prevent Palestinians who marry Israeli citizens from receiving citizenship.

The legislation — which has been introduced, but abandoned in the past — aims to limit and restrict immigration to Israel, and provide the state with greater capabilities in deporting those in the country illegally.

The bill, signed onto by Likud, Religious Zionism, Shas, United Torah Judaism, and renegade Yamina MK Amichai Chikli, would limit eligibility for temporary residency, permanent residency and citizenship. It would also provide the Knesset with the power to revoke residency or citizenship, and give the state the ability to seize money brought in by those who enter the country illegally.

“Security considerations require the promotion of the Basic Law on Immigration. Every Zionist party is expected to support it and put Israel before any coalition consideration,” the bill’s authors said in a statement, while not yet releasing the text of the proposal.

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