Discord between right-wing politicians in both the coalition and opposition snowballed Tuesday over the government’s failure to pass a Knesset motion renewing a law that bars Palestinians from obtaining Israeli citizenship through marriage, with lawmakers from both sides accusing each other of endangering Israeli security.
A pre-dawn vote Tuesday on an annual extension to the contentious measure was torpedoed by Yamina MK Amichai Chikli, who voted against the measure, drawing calls for his removal from the faction. With two members of the Islamist Ra’am coalition party abstaining, the 59-59 vote was not enough to pass the bill. The law expired at midnight Tuesday.
The law has historically been supported by right-wing parties as a necessary measure for Israeli security and to ensure the country maintains a Jewish majority. However, several opposition parties from the right, including Likud and Religious Zionism, voted against the law’s extension as a means of embarrassing and weakening the coalition, which includes a wide array of parties from across the political spectrum.
Writing on Twitter Tuesday afternoon, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu said his decision to vote against the law “halted [Prime Minister Naftali] Bennett and [Interior Minister Ayelet] Shaked’s attempt to sell the country to [Ra’aam chair] Mansour Abbas and grant citizenship to thousands of Palestinians.”
Echoing Netanyahu, Likud MK Miri Regev called Bennett and Shaked the “[Bernie] Madoff of Israeli politics,” referring to the late US Jewish fraudster.
Regev told Channel 12 News that the two Yamina politicians “sold this country to Mansour Abbas, fulfilling the dream of [former Palestinian Authority president] Yasser Arafat.”
In order to pass the bill, a coalition compromise agreement with Ra’am, Labor and Meretz was put forward overnight Monday-Tuesday that reportedly entailed reducing the proposed extension to just six months instead of a year, issuing A-5 residency visas to some 1,600 Palestinian families, and establishing a committee to find humanitarian solutions to the other 9,700 Palestinians residing in Israel on military-issued stay permits.
Likud said it would introduce a new law which will permanently ban Palestinian naturalization through marriage.
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 ever since.
The law was initially passed after some 130,000 Palestinians entered Israel via family reunification between 1993 and 2003, including during the Second Intifada. The prime concern stated at the time was that some Palestinians gaining Israeli status would engage in terrorism.
However, there was also an underlying demographic goal. The security establishment assesses that some 200,000 Palestinians would have gained Israeli citizenship or residency each decade were it not for this legislation, Channel 12 reported.
Earlier Tuesday, Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich, whose hard-right party also voted against the bill, said that Shaked had abandoned her principles as a right-winger.
“How did your hand not tremble when you signed the agreement that a week ago you said was dangerous for security?” he said, referring to the reported agreement with the coalition’s left-wing factions. “From a candidate for prime minister a few years ago, you have become nothing but a rag.”
Shaked, whose Yamina party has allied with Smotrich in recent years, responded Tuesday evening by saying that Smotrich should be “ashamed.”
“We have been begging you for weeks to support the bill as it was,” she said.
Following the vote, Bennett aimed his ire at party colleague Chikli for what the prime minister said was a flip-flop.
“I think he’s confused. An hour before the vote he said, ‘Under no circumstances will I vote to lower the gates and enable mass entry of Palestinians,'” Bennett said at a press conference.
Responding to Bennett’s direct criticism of him, Chikli tweeted Tuesday afternoon that the prime minister was the “confused” one, not him.
“Dear Naftali, you’ve gotten lost in your navigation,” he wrote. “It is not too late to recalculate a new route and work to establish a [right-wing] government just as you promised.”
Yamina officials say they are weighing whether to officially designate Chikli as a deserter from the party, which would come with sanctions.
Yamina MK Shirley Pinto said Tuesday that Chikli should be kicked out of the party.
“He should be declared a ‘deserter,’” Pinto told Kan radio, saying Chikli had proved he was more loyal to opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu than to any ideology, and “is looking for his next job and everything Netanyahu promised him… we can’t work with him, we can’t operate like this. We need to sanction him.”
However, others in the party may be hesitant about the move, seeking to preserve Chikli as a potential supporter in a key vote on the state budget, which the government must pass to survive.
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 prime minister. However, he subsequently said he would vote with the coalition on most matters.
After the vote Tuesday, Chikli said his decision to block the extension was due to the compromise deal with Ra’am: “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.
Bennett also accused the opposition of “purposefully and directly” damaging Israel’s security out of spite.
Likud responded to Bennett by denouncing the prime minister’s “insolence.”
“He’s talking about damaging national security? Someone who formed a weak coalition that relies on the votes of the extreme left and post-Zionist parties should not pretend to care about Israel’s security,” Netanyahu’s party said in a statement.
“Bennett preferred to negotiate with the far-left and the anti-Zionists, just to avoid talking with Likud and the right-wing parties,” it charged. “He chose to ignore us. Instead, he and Shaked continued selling out the Land of Israel.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.