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Ministers meet to approve Meron disaster inquiry, appoint diplomats

A week after its confirmation, new government challenged by divide over Palestinian family reunification law; security cabinet reviews Gaza policy

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (R), Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (C) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz attend the first cabinet meeting, at the Knesset on June 13, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (R), Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (C) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz attend the first cabinet meeting, at the Knesset on June 13, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A week after being sworn in, the new government on Sunday faced a busy day of legislative action, with the cabinet convening for several key votes and the high-level security cabinet slated to meet for the first time to hammer out its Gaza policy.

The discussions over security, as well as an ongoing debate over the controversial “family reunification” law for the Palestinians, were expected to test whether the coalition parties — an unlikely ensemble of right-wing, left-wing, centrist and Islamist factions — could bridge their considerable ideological differences.

The new government, which removed longtime leader Benjamin Netanyahu from power last week, has a razor-thin majority over the opposition in the Knesset.

In its first order of business, the cabinet on Sunday was set to vote on whether to establish a state commission of inquiry into the deadly crush at Mount Meron in April, which killed 45 people in Israel’s worst peacetime disaster. The proposal, submitted by Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, is expected to be approved unanimously.

Victims of the April 30, 2021, Mount Meron disaster: Top row (L-R): Chen Doron, Haim Rock, Ariel Tzadik, Yossi Kohn, Yisrael Anakvah, Yishai Mualem, Yosef Mastorov, Elkana Shiloh and Moshe Levy; 2nd row (L-R): Shlomo Zalman Leibowitz, Shmuel Zvi Klagsbald, Mordechai Fakata, Dubi Steinmetz, Abraham Daniel Ambon, Eliezer Gafner, Yosef Greenbaum, Yehuda Leib Rubin and Yaakov Elchanan Starkovsky; 3rd row (L-R): Haim Seler, Yehoshua Englard, Moshe Natan Neta Englard, Yedidia Hayut, Moshe Ben Shalom, David Krauss, Eliezer Tzvi Joseph, Yosef Yehuda Levy and Yosef Amram Tauber; 4th row (L-R): Menachem Knoblowitz, Elazar Yitzchok Koltai, Yosef David Elhadad, Shraga Gestetner, Yonatan Hebroni, Shimon Matalon, Elazar Mordechai Goldberg, Moshe Bergman and Daniel Morris; 5th row (L-R): Ariel Achdut, Moshe Mordechai Elhadad, Hanoch Slod, Yedidya Fogel, Menahem Zakbah, Simcha Diskind, Moshe Tzarfati, Nahman Kirshbaum and Eliyahu Cohen.

Ministers will also vote to approve the appointment of 36 ambassadors and consuls general whose postings had been held up by Netanyahu for over half a year.

The cabinet will go on to vote on the extension of Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi’s tenure as head of the Israel Defense Forces for an additional year, a measure put forward by Gantz earlier this month. In a statement before the vote, the defense minister hailed Kohavi as “one of the finest chiefs of staff the IDF has ever had.”

“[Kohavi] led the military to unprecedented operative achievements during Operation Guardian of the Walls” — last month’s 11-day battle between Israel and Hamas in Gaza — “and together we will continue to advance the Momentum plan to upgrade the IDF,” Gantz said, referring to Kohavi’s plan to revamp the military.

Later in the day, the security cabinet was set to convene for the first time. According to Channel 12 news, the ministers in the forum were set to lay out the government’s policy vis-a-vis terror groups in the Gaza Strip.

The meeting comes after Israel carried out retaliatory airstrikes in Gaza last week following airborne arson attacks from the coastal enclave that have threatened to renew fighting between the sides after last month’sconflict.

Explosions light up the night sky above buildings in Gaza City as IDF planes shell the Palestinian enclave, early on June 16, 2021. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

Controversy over ‘family reunification,’ submarines probe

Meanwhile, the new government was internally divided over the extension of a 2003 law barring Palestinians who marry Israeli citizens from receiving citizenship, with Meretz’s Issawi Frej and the Arab Ra’am party opposing the measure.

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.

Minister for Regional Cooperation Issawi Frej arrives at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, June 14, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But the 2003 measure, passed due to concerns it was being abused by 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 Netanyahu’s 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 rather than to prevent terrorism as it nominally claims to do. Proponents largely agree with this claim, but justify their position by saying that without the law tens of thousands and potentially hundreds of thousands of Palestinians could submit requests to become Israeli citizens every year, threatening to upend the Jewish majority of the country.

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 opined that Likud should issue demands to the coalition in exchange for its support, the report said.

On Wednesday, coalition chairman Idit Silman (Yamina) was forced to pull the measure from the Knesset Arrangements Committee agenda 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.

Kan 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.

Israel’s new Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (L) talks with Mansour Abbas, head of the Islamic Ra’am party during a special session to vote on the new government at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 13, 2021. (EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP)

“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.

Meretz MK Mossi Raz on Saturday said he does not yet know how he will vote on the issue. He predicted “another law” will ultimately come up for a vote, but said he doesn’t know what it will be.

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

In another potentially divisive issue for the coalition, Defense Minister Gantz announced that he ordered a fresh probe of the so-called submarine scandal on Saturday night, after his previous attempt to launch an inquiry was called off by the attorney general to avoid a conflict with his own criminal investigation of the matter.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with members of the Israeli Navy at a ceremony welcoming the INS Tanin submarine, built by the German firm ThyssenKrupp, in the Port of Haifa on September 23, 2014. (Kobi Gideon/Government Press Office )

This new investigation must receive approval from the government. It was not immediately clear if the motion would receive the broad support necessary. Spokespeople for Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told The Times of Israel the matter would be discussed within the government.

Unnamed officials in the coalition told Channel 12 that Gantz’s proposal was petty and had not been coordinated with the rest of the government.

The submarine affair, also known as Case 3000, revolves around allegations of a massive bribery scheme in Israel’s multi-billion-shekel purchase of naval vessels — submarines and large missile ships — from German shipbuilder Thyssenkrupp. The scandal also involved the sale of two Dolphin-class submarines and two anti-submarine warships by Germany to Egypt, allegedly approved by Netanyahu without consulting or notifying then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and then-IDF chief of staff Gantz. Israel had long been granted an unofficial veto over such sales by Germany.

While several of Netanyahu’s close associates have been indicted in the case, which involves suspicions Israeli officials were bribed to ensure Thyssenkrupp won the contract, the former premier has not been directly implicated, and the attorney general has said he is not a suspect.

Netanyahu, who was accused by former defense minister Ya’alon of having led the alleged improper effort to buy the submarines from Thyssenkrupp, has previously blocked a number of efforts to form a parliamentary commission of inquiry.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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