Israel's New Government Is Dealt A Defeat With Vote Over Palestinian Citizenship Law

Jul 6, 2021
Originally published on July 7, 2021 6:53 am

JERUSALEM — In a blow to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Israel's parliament failed to renew a controversial law that prevents Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza from getting residency in Israel after they marry Palestinians with Israeli citizenship.

The Tuesday vote was 59-59. The law required a simple majority to pass in what's usually a routine annual renewal. A new effort to reinstate the law could still come soon.

Bennett, who took office less than a month ago, was undermined by several members of his governing coalition, including those of the United Arab List party and a rebel member of his own Yamina party, who all voted against extending the law.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his opposition Likud party, along with the Religious Zionist Party, also voted against extending the law despite supporting it in the past. The move was widely seen as an attempt by Netanyahu to make good on a promise to "bring down this dangerous government."

Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, who is a member of Bennett's Yamina party, said Netanyahu and his allies chose "petty and ugly politics, and let the country burn."

Bennett said the opposition is harming security

The result of the vote showcased the fragility of the new coalition government, which is made up of eight political parties, ranging from far-right to Islamist to left, and whose primary common goal so far had been to topple Netanyahu. In a press conference following the vote, Bennett said the opposition "purposefully and directly harmed the state's security."

"Out of some sort of spite and frustration, they damaged the country," Bennett said.

The Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law was enacted in 2003 when Palestinians were launching attacks inside Israel, and it has been renewed each year since then. The law has been a source of stress and inconvenience for Arab Israelis and their Palestinian partners from the adjacent West Bank and Gaza Strip, and it plays a key role in how or whom they decide to marry.

Supporters of the law argue it's necessary for national security and to preserve the demographic status of Israel's Jewish population.

But critics have called the law a cruel and racist measure designed to restrict the growth of Arab Israelis. In a statement, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said that "the law has been a stain on Israel" and called for the immediate erasure of "all traces of the disgraceful Citizenship and Entry Law."

It's unclear whether the vote will have an immediate effect for Palestinians seeking residency or citizenship. Applications will have to go through the Ministry of Interior and could be subject to extra scrutiny and a long waiting process, according Dahlia Scheindlin, a political strategist at the Century Foundation.

Palestinians celebrate the vote

Among Palestinians, the outcome of Tuesday's vote was met with celebration. Fatah Jadallah, who holds a West Bank ID, has been married to his wife, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, for 17 years and was at the Knesset on Monday protesting the law.

On Tuesday, Jadallah said, he woke up at 5 a.m. to wait for the vote.

"I was very happy that we made it," he said. "I could not believe that we achieved something that was impossible. I thank everyone who stood with us and helped us."

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Israel's Parliament has failed to renew a law that's been hindering Palestinian families for years. The law prevents Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza from getting citizenship in Israel even after they marry Palestinians inside Israel who have Israeli citizenship. Parliament renews the law periodically, but this time it failed on a tie vote after an all-night debate. It was a blow to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, but the battle isn't over. NPR's Fatma Tanis reports from Jerusalem.

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: By blocking citizenship and residency for Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza who marry Israeli citizens, the law also impacts their access to health insurance and jobs.

SHARON ABRAHAM-WEISS: I think it's one of the worst laws in the Israeli book of laws. And I hope it will be removed forever.

TANIS: That's Sharon Abraham-Weiss. She's the executive director for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and says the law was used as collective punishment for Palestinians since it was enacted in 2003 during the second intifada, when Palestinians were launching attacks in Israel. Supporters of the law say it's necessary for national security and for demographics, to preserve Israel as a Jewish nation. But even though most of Parliament seems to favor it, the opposition withdrew support in an apparent attempt to destabilize the new coalition. For now at least, it worked out in favor of Palestinians.

FATAH JADALLAH: I was very happy that we made it.

TANIS: Fatah Jadallah is a Palestinian from the West Bank. He's been married to a Palestinian citizen of Israel for 17 years, and they have two children together.

JADALLAH: That we achieved something was impossible - I thank everyone who helped us.

TANIS: But it's unclear if the vote will change the status for thousands of Palestinians who will still have to apply for citizenship and could be turned down. Dahlia Scheindlin is in Tel Aviv with the U.S.-based Century Foundation.

DAHLIA SCHEINDLIN: I mean, it will just mean more work for the interior minister, who has to go through the applications one by one. And she could decide to just reject all of them out of hand anyway. It would almost be the same thing.

TANIS: And the Israeli Parliament could still take up the law again and renew it after all.

Fatima Tanis, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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