New immigrants will need to prove they’ve settled in Israel before getting passports

Shas leader Deri instructs Population Authority to prepare for new rule aimed at dissuading people from obtaining citizenship only to promptly leave

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Illustrative. A traveler enters Israel through a new passport control terminal in Ben Gurion International Airport in central Israel on May 20, 2015. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Illustrative. A traveler enters Israel through a new passport control terminal in Ben Gurion International Airport in central Israel on May 20, 2015. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri is planning a new policy that will see new immigrants required to prove they’ve settled in Israel in order to be eligible for an Israeli passport, his office said Monday.

A statement said Deri had instructed the Population Authority to begin preparing for the move, a shift from the current policy that grants a passport automatically upon obtaining citizenship.

Deri’s plan would first require a law change, which would be part of the incoming coalition’s immigration reform. In addition to the passport law, the government also intends to alter the Law of Return, specifically the clause that permits anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent to obtain citizenship. This has drawn intense criticism from Diaspora Jewry.

In the past, new immigrants were only eligible for a passport after a year in the country. In 2017, a new law allowed new immigrants to obtain a passport immediately, despite warnings from law enforcement that such a permissive policy could lead to abuse.

“The ‘air train’ in which people eligible [for citizenship] under the Law of Return are taking advantage of their right to a passport and ‘absorption package’ [of government benefits], and then going back to where they came from is unacceptable,” Deri said.

“We should give status and a passport only to those who are settling in Israel, not to those looking to get benefits they’re not entitled to.”

Such a rule change was hinted at in the government’s coalition deals, which referred to a need to “prevent the misuse of the rights the state gives to new immigrants by those who return to their countries of origin shortly after immigrating to Israel.”

It was not immediately clear by what criteria the Population Authority would determine whether a new immigrant was eligible for a passport. Currently, new immigrants are only eligible for benefits — stipends, housing subsidies, tax discounts, etc. — while they are in Israel; they are automatically frozen if a new immigrant leaves the country.

Unlike the other aspects of the incoming government’s immigration reform proposals, overturning the 2017 passport law likely would not draw substantial criticism.

The ability to receive a passport immediately has drawn significant criticism in recent weeks, following news reports based on population data showing that large numbers of new immigrants, particularly from Russia, had obtained Israeli passports and then promptly left the country. Some have seen the reports themselves as part of a political campaign to drive up public support for amending the Law of Return.

In the Knesset last month, former immigration and absorption minister Pnina Tamano-Shata said that even she would support changing the passport law.

However, she maintained that many of the numbers cited in the recent news reports were willfully misleading, as many of those returning to Russia were doing so to settle their affairs — a process made more complicated by international sanctions against Russian institutions — before coming back to Israel to live in the country for good.

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