Coalition meeting on Palestinian family reunification ends without breakthrough

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Monday held consultations with senior ministers and the head of the Islamist party Ra’am to hammer out a compromise on the so-called “family reunification law,” which blocks the automatic granting of citizenship to Palestinians who marry Israeli citizens.

The meeting ended with no breakthrough on the issue, which is testing the new coalition composed of right-wing, centrist, left-wing, and Arab parties, Channel 12 reported on Monday night. The parties agreed on the importance of coalition unity, but failed to resolve the deadlock on this specific issue, the network said.

The bill to extend the 2003 law was pulled Sunday from its scheduled vote for the next day, with the government apparently unable to muster a majority to pass the measure, even though most MKs back the legislation in principle.

The new government is internally divided over the issue, with Regional Cooperation Minister Issawi Frej of Meretz, fellow party member Mossi Raz, Labor’s Ibtisam Mara’ana, and the Arab Ra’am party opposing the measure as it currently stands, and calling for changes to be made.

The Monday meeting was attended by Bennett, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin, Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas, Yesh Atid MK Boaz Toporovsky, and coalition whip Idit Silman, according to Hebrew media reports.

According to the Walla news site, Shaked was opposing any changes to the law to appease Ra’am, while Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, Labor leader Merav Michaeli, and Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz favored revisions. Shaked believes right-wing opposition lawmakers will not actively oppose the bill to prevent its passage in the plenum, according to Walla.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, left, and Ra’am leader MK Mansour Abbas, seated, at the swearing in of the new Israeli government, in the Knesset on June 13, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

For the new government, which has a razor-thin majority over the opposition in the Knesset, opposition by even a single MK from the coalition could be enough to stop the bill.

That means that the government is dependent on right-wing opposition parties to help pass the bill. While those parties back the law in principle, they have refused to support it, in the hopes of embarrassing the new government.

Shaked hopes to bring the so-called family reunification law for a vote on Wednesday, the Ynet news site reported.

The coalition accused opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies of “playing with the country’s security” by “putting political considerations before the security interest of the citizens of the State of Israel.”

The new ruling coalition was also forced to cancel a committee vote on the bill last week when it realized it did not have the necessary majority.

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.

Palestinians and supporters demonstrating in front of then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office, against the law limiting Israeli-Palestinian family reunification on April 14, 2013. (Sliman Khader/FLASH90/File)

But the 2003 measure, passed due to concerns that it was being abused by members of 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 Likud and other right-wing parties.

The current measure expires July 6.

Critics call the law racist and say it is an attempt by Israel to keep the number of Arab citizens down. Proponents say that without the law, tens of thousands of Palestinians could submit requests to become Israeli citizens every year.

While Likud lawmakers in principle support renewing the legislation that bars granting citizenship to Palestinians who marry Israelis, many have indicated that they will vote against it just to undermine the new government and attempt to divide it.

According to Channel 13 news, there is a debate within Likud on whether to support the law if it is brought to a vote this week, with Netanyahu and Likud’s 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 said his party was prepared to support the law if the government backs his legislation to legalize dozens of wildcat outposts in the West Bank. The majority of parties in the unity government oppose such measures that expand Israeli presence beyond the Green Line.

Last week, Defense Minister Benny Gantz publicly urged Netanyahu to back the extension of the law. Gantz said the opposition’s plans to torpedo the extension will harm Israeli security.

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar used his opening statement at the New Hope faction meeting on Monday to address the controversy on Palestinian family reunification.

“Likud is acting in a clear manner against its own principles,” Sa’ar said. “This is political schizophrenia. The opposition — apparently to try to embarrass the coalition, although I believe they’re only embarrassing themselves — is prepared to harm the good of the country as it itself defines it.”

Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli told her Labor faction meeting Monday that “change is in the air” in the new coalition.

She added that the coalition was working on resolving its differences of opinion on the reunification law, and said “it would be appropriate if we can make changes to it and come to an agreement on it.”

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