Government moves to reinstate 1-year residency requirement for passports

By July 10, Interior Ministry expected to change policy and not issue passports to Law of Return immigrants until they can prove center of life in Israel — usually after a year

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Illustrative: Immigrants fleeing from war zones in the Ukraine arrive at the Israeli immigration and absorption office, at the Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, on March 15, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)
Illustrative: Immigrants fleeing from war zones in the Ukraine arrive at the Israeli immigration and absorption office, at the Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, on March 15, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)

The government is set to reinstate a one-year residency requirement before issuing an Israeli passport to new immigrants, starting as early as July 10 of this year, according to the Knesset committee preparing the legislation.

On Tuesday, the Knesset’s Internal Affairs and Environment Committee approved for its final floor votes a bill to grant the interior minister power to refuse to issue a passport to a new immigrant who arrived under Israel’s Law of Return until the immigrant has proven that their center of life is in Israel.

The law effectively nullifies a legislative agreement the government made with the Yisrael Beytenu party in 2017 to ease documentation for new immigrants, approving an amendment that permitted granting passports on arrival to immigrants who qualify for citizenship through their Jewish heritage.

The new legislation said the 2017 agreement led to a steep rise in the number of new immigrants, known as olim, who received Israeli passports without settling down in Israel. Before 2017, the Interior Ministry relied upon a 1964 directive to use one year as test for residency, and issued a temporary transit document until the year was up.

According to the proposed law, after a cumulative year in Israel, a new immigrant must then prove that the country is his or her center of life to qualify for a passport. Children born abroad to Israeli parents are granted birthright citizenship, and will continue to automatically qualify for passports.

Put forward as a government-sponsored bill, the measure is likely to reduce the burden on an overtaxed Interior Ministry to issue passports during a period of acute overload. It also follows a banner year for immigration, led by Russian immigrants spooked by their country’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

The legislation was advanced the same day Interior Minister Moshe Arbel also announced plans to examine a pathway to citizenship for foreign elite athletes who play for Israeli teams.

Interior Minister Moshe Arbel arrives the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on May 7, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Speaking to the Internal Affairs Committee on Tuesday, Gil Bringer, the deputy director general of the Interior Ministry’ Population and Immigration Authority, said his office has observed an abuse of the passport-on-arrival policy, claiming a trend of new immigrants using the passports only to get visa-free access to other countries.

“The strength of the Israeli passport erodes alongside the erosion of the connection between having an Israeli passport and the connection to State of Israel,” he said.

People line up outside the Interior Ministry office to renew their passports, in Tel Aviv, on May 14, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/FLASH90)

The deputy director general also said there was a correlation between immigrants remaining longer in Israel and longer waits for passport times, but did not provide a timeframe for his data or additional details.

Data obtained by The Times of Israel from an internal Population Authority presentation shows that there is no meaningful difference in the percentage of immigrants remaining in Israel today, after having emigrated in 2015 — before the agreement granting passports on arrival — and 2017, when that agreement was implemented.

According to the data, some 63% of immigrants who arrived in 2015 and 66% of those who moved in 2016 still make their center of life in Israel today. Since 2017, it has oscillated between 61% and 69%.

The Population Authority uses the test of spending 75% of one’s time in Israel, since immigrating, as a marker for center of life.

In his remarked Tuesday, Bringer also said that tightening requirements is in line with a demand by the United States to fix “passport loopholes” as part of moving forward with joining the Visa Waiver Program.

A number of opposition MKs who voted against the bill, including immigrant MKs Ze’ev Elkin and Yulia Malinovsky, said the policy change will create disparity between immigrants with influence who can arrange expedited documents and others.

MKs Yulia Malinovsky (R) and Oded Forer at a Knesset debate, February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“There is no real data, and everything stems from incorrect assessments and hatred of new immigrants,” charged Malinovsky.

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