Meretz’s Frej won’t back extending ban on Palestinian family reunification

Meretz MK Issawi Frej has said he cannot support extending a law barring Palestinians who marry Israeli citizens from receiving citizenship, further complicating matters for the new government as it seeks to reapprove the 2003 legislation.

“A way out of this mess must be found,” Frej told Kan news on Saturday.

The new government has a razor-thin majority over the opposition in the Knesset.

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.

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 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. Proponents say without the law, tens of thousands and potentially hundreds of thousands of Palestinians could submit requests to become Israeli citizens every year.

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.

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.

“We are in are 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.

Then-MK Iman Khatib-Yasin speaks during a Knesset plenary session at the Knesset, on August 24, 2020. (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL)

If the law is brought up in its current form, the party will vote against the law, she told the network.

“Obviously we will not be on the side [that is] against our own society,” Khatib-Yasin added.

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

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)

“It will be very difficult for us if they pass the law without us and with the opposition, but we know what the reality is that we live in,” Khatib-Yasin said.

On Wednesday, Likud MK Miki Zohar told coalition representatives that 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 expanding Israeli presence beyond the Green Line.

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked (Yamina) pledged to move forward with the legislation, saying it would be brought for a vote next week.

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