Crisis Brews as Israeli Ministers Struggle to Agree on Illegal Outpost, Citizenship Law

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A protest against the Citizenship Law at the Knesset, earlier this week.
A protest against the Citizenship Law at the Knesset, earlier this week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The left-wing Meretz party said on Thursday that it would not support extending the temporary amendment to the Citizenship Law, which blocks Palestinian spouses of Israelis from gaining Israeli citizenship, in response to the deal the Israeli government reached with the residents of the unauthorized West Bank outpost of Evyatar.

The temporary amendment to the law was passed in 2003, during the second intifada, for security reasons. It has been extended every year since, and the previous government began the process of passing it this year. Since the new government took office, Likud has refused to support its extension, saying it will not help the coalition overcome the obstacles it has made for itself.

The agreement between the government and Evyatar settlers stipulates that they will leave the outpost by the weekend. A military base will be established there, and a yeshiva will be set up in a few months' time – only after the Israel examines the ownership status of the land and declares it state-owned.

Meretz Chairman Nitzan Horowitz announced his party's opposition to extending the amendment, which will significantly hurt its chances of being passed. Meretz opposed the compromise with the Evyatar settlers, saying it was never consulted on the matter. The party’s lawmakers are expected to vote against or abstain from voting on extending the temporary legislation, which is expected to take place in the Knesset on Monday.

A senior Meretz official said that the right-wing component of the government coalition feels they can do whatever they want, and that everyone else will have to accept it. “[Yamina's Ayelet] Shaked even allows herself to make threats. It doesn’t work that way. The two sides knew what type of marriage they were getting into,” and both sides will have to put up with things they don’t want, the official said.

No cabinet vote

Meretz Chairman Nitzan Horowitz at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, two months ago.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Meretz ministers have presented their demand that the government halt house demolitions in Jerusalem's Silwan neighborhood and in Bedouin communities in Israel's south following the approval of the Evyatar compromise. "Evyatar is a wild outpost intended to offend and to create provocation," Horowitz said on Thursday.

The coalition agreement signed with Islamist party United Arab List stipulates a three-month freeze on house demolitions in the Negev, as well as another two-year freeze on the so-called Kaminitz Law, which calls for stricter enforcement of construction violations, primarily affecting Arab communities. Therefore, it remains unclear what effect the demands set forth by Meretz would have.

Despite Meretz's objection to the Evyatar plan, it won't be brought to the cabinet's approval, as Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Defense Minister Benny Gantz are authorized to do approve it on their own. Meretz said it would now insist on advancing their demand, too, as part of the coalition management forum.

Meretz came under fire on Thursday for its part in a government that advances a plan that could ultimately leave the illegal outpost standing. Former Likud minister Tzachi Hanegbi called in an interview to Army Radio to change the outpost’s name to Ramat Horowitz. “This coalition’s support is in fact enabling the settlement’s establishment. When they do good things, we commend it,” he said.

Prominent human rights advocate Michael Sfard also lashed out at Meretz. “In my wildest dreams I didn’t imagine Meretz would agree to whitewashing outposts,” he tweeted. “A government with Meretz is undertaking to give the stolen property to the robbers, and nobody even thought to talk to the Palestinians living in the area. Fully right wing governments didn’t sign such undertakings.”

Meretz rejected the criticism and a party spokesman said: “One would think that if Meretz hadn’t been in the government this plan wouldn’t have been approved.”

'Racist law'

Over the past few days, Meretz lawmakers have expressed their opposition to the amendment. Two of them, Esawi Freige and Mossi Raz, announced that they would vote against it. “The Citizenship Law is racist and I reject it, even at the price of giving up the job of minister,” said Freige, who is the regional cooperation minister, in an interview with Kan Bet public radio on Tuesday.

Raz said earlier in the week that he opposes “extending the Citizenship Law. This is a discriminatory law that imposes restrictions on the Arab citizen and sees him as a security and demographic threat.”

In conversations he held on Thursday with Meretz lawmakers, Horowitz made it clear that he too does not intend to support the amendment. But because of his resignation from the Knesset through the so-called Norwegian Law, Horowitz cannot vote on it in any case.

Freige also cannot vote against the amendment – unless he wants to resign his ministerial post – since cabinet members cannot vote against a government-sponsored law and remain in office. He can, however, absent himself from the vote, which he will likely do. The rest of Meretz’s lawmakers are also expected to vote against the extension or abstain.

Meretz's decision reduces the chances of the coalition reaching a compromise on the amendment with the members of the United Arab List. Lacking a majority, the coalition will have to enlist broad support from the opposition parties, or allow the amendment to expire. If that does happen, the significance of the expiration will be limited because as interior minister, Shaked can reject Palestinians' request for Israeli citizenship. Earlier in the week, Shaked called on opposition lawmakers to support the law, or at the very least abstain, “if they don’t want to naturalize 15,000 Palestinian citizens immediately.”

The discussion of the amendment in the Knesset Arrangements Committee was postponed once again on Thursday because of a lack of agreement within the coalition. The committee is supposed to decide which committee will prepare the law for its further readings in the full Knesset. Shaked and Construction and Housing Minister Zeev Elkin are coordinating the handling of it, and plan on bringing it to a vote in the full Knesset, even without a majority, to try to accuse Likud lawmakers and the opposition of blocking it. This is why the coalition will ask for a roll call vote.

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