Will Defeat of Citizenship Law Bring Thousands of Palestinians to Israel, and What Can Bennett Do?

Temporary legislation that bars Palestinians who marry Israelis from residency status expires, after a controversial vote that put Israel's new coalition to the test

Michael Hauser Tov
Michael Hauser Tov
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Interior Minister Shaked, Foreign Minister Lapid and Prime Minister Bennett in the Knesset chamber Tuesday.
From left: Interior Minister Shaked, Foreign Minister Lapid and Prime Minister Bennett in the Knesset chamber Tuesday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Michael Hauser Tov
Michael Hauser Tov

Legislation that prevents Palestinians who marry Israeli citizens from obtaining citizenship expires at midnight Tuesday, after the Knesset failed to renew the temporary amendment, in one of the biggest challenges to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's coalition to date.

Up until Monday's vote against a further extension, lawmakers had renewed the amendment to the Citizenship and Entry Law annually with little controversy since it was first passed in 2003, during the second intifada.

The amendment was justified as a necessity for Israel's security, but many believe that it was designed to ensure that Israel maintains its Jewish demographic majority, as Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said on Monday.

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Will the expiration of the temporary amendment lead to a change in the status of the 15,000 Palestinians who have applied to live in Israel?

No. The expiration of the legislation isn’t retroactive, so it only applies to future requests by Palestinian spouses of Israelis to live in Israel. But Palestinians whose applications have been denied in the past will be able to submit a new one, which will have to be considered again.

With the expiration of the amendment, if Palestinians married to Israelis apply for the right to live in Israel, will their applications be approved automatically?

Not necessarily. As long as the temporary provision remained in force, any application submitted to the Interior Ministry was automatically denied unless the Interior Minister decided otherwise. When Arye Dery was interior minister, he approved the requests of several hundred Palestinians who had lived in Israel for many years. Now the situation is reversed.

Every application will be reviewed by the Shin Bet security service and if no security grounds are found to deny the application, it will be automatically approved – unless the interior minister decides otherwise. In other words, the current minister, Ayelet Shaked, now has the authority to reject applications for Israeli residency on an individual basis, and she is expected to do so.

So as a practical matter, the situation is not expected to change. Any application that can be denied will still be rejected, as was the case when the law was in force.

Is the current situation expected to get the court involved in the decisions?

Possibly. Right-wing figures in the coalition and the opposition are concerned that petitions challenging Shaked’s denial of applications will be filed with the High Court of Justice in every instance and that the court will grant the petitions. Shaked warned that in the past, when the court considered the temporary legislation, a minority of the justices expressed the view that the legislation should be struck down. Under some circumstances, Shaked has said, it’s possible that the court could intervene in her decision-making.

A hearing at the Israeli Supreme Court on the citizenship law, 2010.Credit: Daniel Bar-On

“If this law is defeated once [in the Knesset], that would have devastating consequences. We have twice managed to maintain this law by a single vote,” Shaked told the cabinet last week, prior to the bill’s defeat on Tuesday. “If the Knesset defeats it once, I don’t know what it’s fate will be in the High Court.”

Can the coalition government reintroduce the legislation?

Yes, and it is very possible that it will do so. The effort to extend the period of prior legislation failed in a tie vote of 59 to 59. If it is resubmitted for another vote, the coalition hopes that Yamina Knesset member Amichai Chikli, who voted against it on Tuesday, will change his mind and vote in favor. 

Another option available to the coalition is to try to pass different legislation. Members of the Knesset opposition have proposed passage of a basic law on immigration, which would have constitutional status. Several proposed versions of the legislation exist, but the chances of the government coalition backing any of them are small, apparently preferring instead to introduce its own bill.

If it does so, it would seek to have the legislation passed within a matter of several weeks – even before the High Court might hear challenges to any decisions that Shaked might take to deny applications for residency by Palestinians married to Israelis.

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