Cabinet ministers gave first-stage approval Sunday to a bill that would bar Palestinians who marry Israelis from receiving permits to live with their spouses in Israel, months after an earlier ban expired following a dramatic coalition fight.
The bill — widely referred to as the “Citizenship Law” — passed a vote in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, which allows it to be fast-tracked through the legislative process. From there, the bill goes to the Knesset, where it must still pass three votes before becoming law.
Sunday’s bill was submitted by opposition MK Simcha Rothman (Religious Zionism), and was nearly identical to legislation sponsored by the government last week.
However, the government version of the bill is unlikely to progress further in the Knesset, as right-wing opposition lawmakers have been voting against coalition proposals even if they are aligned with their policies.
Seven ministers voted in favor of the bill on Sunday. Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg, Energy Minister Karine Elharrar, and Social Equality Minister Meirav Cohen voted against it; Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai abstained.
Potentially holding up the legislation, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid filed an appeal against Sunday’s committee vote, requiring that the legislation be discussed during a full cabinet meeting before it can be brought before the Knesset for a vote as a government-sponsored bill.
Introduced at the height of the Second Intifada in an attempt to prevent terror attacks, the 2003 Citizenship and Entry Law largely barred Palestinians who married Israelis from obtaining permanent residency. Exceptions were later carved out for some spouses to receive two kinds of permits that gave residency but little else.
The law has been wildly controversial since its inception, with rights groups charging that it discriminates against Palestinians and Arab Israelis. The Supreme Court upheld the law in a 6-5 decision in 2012 after a protracted legal battle.
But the coalition failed to win a vote on renewing the law last year, and it expired. Despite the fact that the law aligned with its policies, the right-wing opposition, led by Likud, voted against in order to embarrass the coalition.
The current, razor-thin coalition government includes both Meretz and the Islamist Ra’am party, neither of which is likely to vote in favor. Should the law again come to the Knesset floor, it would likely again need opposition backing to pass — but those parties have yet to indicate any willingness to change their vote.
Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked has since ordered her office to continue to implement the ban, even though the law is no longer on the books.
Around 12,700 Palestinians married to Israelis live in Israel with temporary documentation, required to constantly renew their fragile status in the country. For years, most were not permitted to drive or open bank accounts. If their Israeli spouse dies or they divorce, they could be deported — forcing their Arab Israeli children to either leave with them for the West Bank or stay behind without them.
The amendment was renewed on a yearly basis until it was overturned in a dramatic dawn vote in July. While Israel’s razor-thin ruling coalition had sought to pass the amendment again, two parliamentarians from Ra’am abstained, denying the government the necessary votes.
On paper, with the lapsing of the law, Palestinians married to Israelis are currently legally no different from any other foreign spouse. Israeli law grants foreign spouses residency in the country through a process known as family unification.
However, the Interior Ministry is controlled by Shaked, who has instructed ministry staff to continue as though the ban were still valid until further notice. Shaked has pushed for even stricter controls on Palestinian immigration to Israel in the past.
In a letter explaining the current policy in September, a senior Interior Ministry official said that Shaked had ordered the ministry to carry on as though the law remained in force while the office “examined the implications of the change.”
The government initially enacted the ban on Palestinian family unification in order to prevent terror attacks. The 2003 statute was passed after Hamas member Shadi Tubasi — who had received an Israeli identity card by marriage — killed 16 Israelis in one of the Second Intifada’s most brutal terror attacks.
Around 130,000 Palestinians were granted family unification rights during the 1990s, before the ban went into effect. According to the Shin Bet security service, some 155 of those people or their descendants have been involved in terror attacks since 2001.
Israeli politicians — including Lapid — have also increasingly defended the law as a demographic measure intended to maintain Israel’s Jewish majority.
“There’s no need to shirk from the essence of this law. It is one of the tools to ensure a Jewish majority in Israel, which is the nation-state of the Jewish people. Our goal is for there to be a Jewish majority,” Lapid tweeted shortly before the law lapsed in early July.
Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.