Israeli Lawmakers to Vote on Controversial Citizenship Law, Even Without Clear Majority

Legislators still struggle to find a compromise with coalition members Meretz and United Arab List in an effort to extend the law which prevents family unification between Israeli Arabs and Palestinians

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

The Knesset will vote Monday on whether to extend a temporary law that bars most Palestinians married to Israelis from obtaining residency rights, but the government still has no idea whether it will be able to find a majority for the bill.

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

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. But coalition sources consider this very unlikely.

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Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, who is in charge of the legislation, believes that it will ultimately pass because some members of the Likud and Religious Zionism parties will either support it or abstain on the grounds that it is necessary for security reasons.

At the start of Sunday’s cabinet meeting, she said that opposition leaders who saw the Shin Bet security service’s opinion on the subject less than a month ago realized that the bill “has to pass, and I don’t believe they’ll change their minds.”

Likud is trying to pressure coalition parties to instead pass a Basic Law on Migration. But contrary to what Likud has claimed, Knesset bylaws would not allow its bill to be brought to a vote Monday even if the government agreed.

Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement Sunday that the current government “isn’t capable of preserving Israel’s Jewish character. They expect us to pass this bill, 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.”

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.

If the opposition does decide to oppose the bill, 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 bill to do so. It would also presumably persuade Meretz and the United Arab List to abstain rather than vote against, but that still wouldn’t suffice for the bill to pass.

If the government fails to secure a majority 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.

The government is also still exploring compromises that might get Meretz and the United Arab List to support the bill in exchange for immediate relief on other issues of importance to them. For instance, Shaked in her capacity as interior minister 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 so far, the United Arab List has demanded a number of concessions that Shaked isn’t willing to grant. Moreover, even if those concessions were granted, UAL would only be willing to extend the law for a short time rather than a full year.

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

Even if the law isn’t extended, Shaked has the power as interior minister to reject Palestinian spouses’ request for residency rights in Israel. But she fears that if 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 law isn’t extended, a new version enacted later might be overturned by the court. The court has so far upheld the existing temporary law, but only by a razor-thin majority.

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