Bennett, Netanyahu Dig in Their Heels on Controversial Citizenship Law

Knesset set to vote to extend law preventing Palestinians who married Israeli citizens from residing in the country

Michael Hauser Tov
Michael Hauser Tov
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Israeli Arab women gather for a protest ahead of a vote by Israel's parliament on renewing the Citizenship Law, on Monday.
Israeli Arab women gather for a protest ahead of a vote by Israel's parliament on renewing the Citizenship Law, on Monday.Credit: AP
Michael Hauser Tov
Michael Hauser Tov

Israeli coalition leaders decried attempts by opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu to thwart the renewal of the controversial Citizenship Law on Monday, with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warning the opposition "not to play games" since "national security is a red line."

The controversy of the Citizenship Law revolves around whether Palestinians living in the West Bank or Gaza who marry Israeli citizens can be banned from living permanently in Israel with their spouses and denied a path to citizenship. The temporary amendment to the law that currently prevents them from doing this has been renewed annually since 2003. 

The legislation can succeed only if parts of the opposition either support it or abstain from voting, since two parties in the governing coalition plan to oppose it. So far, however, the opposition has been threatening to vote against it.

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"To my friends in the opposition, I say this: There are some things you don't mess with. The state's security is a red line, and the country needs to be in control of who enters the borders and citizenship," Bennett said at a party meeting. 

"To allow thousands of Palestinians to enter Israel and the consequential harm caused to Israel's security isn't worth winning a quarter of a political point. It's just wrong," he added.

A meeting of the government on Sunday.Credit: יונתן זינדל/פלאש90

In a Yesh Atid party meeting, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid also weighed in on the issue, stating that "if the opposition votes against the bill, it will prove that it is more important to it to oppose the government than to support the country."

The temporary amendment is being fast-tracked so that the committee debate and plenary vote will both take place Monday. Speed is critical because the current extension expires at midnight on Tuesday night.

Netanyahu, the former prime minister and Likud chairman, said in a closed-door Likud meeting that "toppling the current government is more important than the Citizenship Law. And this is the beginning, this is the breaking point." 

Likud is trying to pressure coalition parties to instead pass a Basic Law on Migration to prevent Palestinians with Israeli spouses from living in the country. But despite what Likud has claimed, Knesset bylaws would not allow this bill to be brought to a vote on Monday even if the government agreed.

Ayelet Shaked, who plays a central role in the legislation as interior minister, conceded on Monday that "as of this moment, we don't have a majority, but I hope and believe that we will have a majority by tonight."

She believes that it will ultimately pass because some members of Likud and Religious Zionism will either support it or abstain on the grounds that it is necessary for security reasons.

The government is also still trying to find a compromise that would allow the two wayward parties, left-wing Meretz and the Islamist United Arab List, to support the bill. For instance, as interior minister, Shaked could make it easier for Palestinians married to Israelis to secure vital documents such as driver’s licenses or permission to leave the country without being barred from reentering. But coalition sources consider this compromise very unlikely.

On Sunday Netanyahu said in a statement that the current government “isn’t capable of preserving Israel’s Jewish character. They expect us to pass this bill [the temporary amendment], which is full of holes, not to solve Israel’s problems and ensure its survival as a Jewish and democratic state, but to ensure the survival of their coalition.”

"Instead of negotiating with us, the government was busy trying to convince Mansour Abbas to pass the law," he said. 

Likud has yet to announce its official decision on how the party will vote. Netanyahu has spent the last day consulting his closest advisers on the issue and will probably decide only on Monday. But while some Likud legislators support it, Netanyahu aides say he will probably opt to have the entire party vote against it.

If the opposition does decide to oppose extending the amendment, it may choose to turn the vote into a vote of confidence on the government. That wouldn’t topple the government, but it would make it hard for opposition lawmakers who might otherwise support the amendment to do so. It would also presumably persuade Meretz and the United Arab List to abstain rather than vote against it, but that still wouldn’t amount in a majority necessary for it to pass.

If the government fails to secure a majority on Monday, it plans to try again almost immediately. Shaked’s theory is that if the bill fails to pass the first time, some opposition legislators who support it in principle will back it the second time around.

Even if the law isn’t extended, as interior minister, Shaked has the power to reject Palestinian spouses’ request for residency rights in Israel. But she fears that if the temporary amendment to the law isn’t in place, any such rejections may be overturned by the High Court of Justice.

She has also warned that if the amendment isn’t extended, a new version enacted later might be overturned by the court. The court has so far upheld the existing temporary amendment, but only by a razor-thin majority.

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