In a major blow to Israel’s fledgling coalition, the Knesset on Tuesday morning failed to approve an extension of the contentious Palestinian family reunification law, after a rebel member of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party voted against the measure.
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 later Tuesday.
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 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 [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 was midnight on Tuesday.
The compromise agreement was put forward by Labor lawmaker Ibtisam Mara’ana and 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.
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.
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 No. 2, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, tweeted that the vote was “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 Abu Shehadeh hasn’t seen madness in their life,” Shaked wrote. “Together they rejected the citizenship law, an important law for Israel’s security and [Jewish] character.”
Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin, a former Likud lawmaker and now an MK for the right-wing New Hope coalition 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.”
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.”
During the Knesset debate after midnight, Shaked interrupted the proceedings to announce the compromise deal, which had been reached in a telephone call between coalition party leaders.
Under the agreement, Meretz voted for the deal along with Ra’am MKs Mansour Abbas and Walid Taha.
Shaked pointed out to the Knesset that the number of permits that would be issued under the agreement was equivalent to those given out by former interior minister Aryeh Deri of the Shas party.
The announcement was met with angry calls from opposition parties in the Knesset.
According to the agreement, the Knesset would have established a supervisory committee under Cabinet Secretary Shalom Shlomo with representatives from the Interior Ministry, the Population, Immigration, and Borders Authority, and a parliamentarian to be named later. Every month, the committee would have provided the Knesset with a report. And within 90 days, the committee would have provided policy alternatives to the current ban.
Earlier, Bennett warned opposition parties not to cross the “red line” of harming Israel’s national security ahead of the vote.
“There are some things you don’t play with. The nation needs control over who comes in,” Bennett said in a statement to the press at the opening of a faction meeting of his Yamina party. “National security is a red line.”