Analysis |

Netanyahu's Glee Aside, Bennett's Defeat on Citizenship Law Is a Promising Step for Israel

Coalition's failure on annual vote to deny Palestinian spouses official status was a coup for Netanyahu camp, but it also steers public debate in the right direction and rectifies years-long collective discrimination

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu addressing the Knesset during a vote on provision preventing legal status from Palestinian spouses of Israeli citizens, July 5, 2021
Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu addressing the Knesset during a vote on provision preventing legal status from Palestinian spouses of Israeli citizens, July 5, 2021Credit: Emil Salman
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

Since the inauguration of the new government, Israeli politics has entered a vicious and vertiginous circle. In the Knesset, those in favor vote against and those opposed vote in favor. On the one hand, members of the makeshift coalition, whose positions are completely contradictory, are trapped in a commitment to self-preservation; On the other hand, the opposition led by Benjamin Netanyahu suddenly shows no interest in ideology but only in toppling the coalition with childish harassment. Therefore, in the midst of this cacophony, it is worth remembering today not only the jokes about MK Amichai Chikli who became the Trojan horse in Naftali Bennett's party, but also the essence and consequence of the Citizenship Law crisis.

To start with, for the first time in many years, there has been a relatively broad and heated public debate about the implications of the controversial temporary provision that has affected thousands of families. Until now, its annual automatic renewal was facilitated by general indifference, despite the legal and moral criticism, but this time the political complexity compelled the Israeli public to recognize and show interest in a long-standing problem that demands to be addressed rather than repressed.

Second, in the current absence of the Temporary Provision for the Denial of the Status of Palestinian Spouses in Israel (the correct title for a law that does not prevent their entry but denies them status and rights), the state will now have to examine each case individually and justify whether there are any reasons, security-related or otherwise, to prevent a specific family unification, with each case reserving the right of appeal. The situation will increase the burden on state authorities, and it is very possible that, as in the case of asylum seekers, the state will do everything in its power to delay and reject each application, especially with Ayelet Shaked at the Interior Ministry. In essence, however, the situation is still an improvement because it prevents collective discrimination. Nor does the Interior Minister have the legal power for sweeping rejections.

Today, the Interior Ministry already has a case-by-case system for exhaustively verifying the sincerity of the relationship between Israelis and their non-Jewish, non-Palestinian foreign partners who wish to immigrate here, a bureaucratic seven circles of hell. If the rationale for preventing official status to Palestinian spouses of Israelis is really motivated by security concerns, then it should be possible to conduct such an examination with regard to each such couple, and to determine whether they pose a security risk. In fact, this is already what happens when Palestinian spouses are allowed into Israel without an official status. Thousands are staying here in this way; had they posed a security risk, they would not have been granted a stay permit.

But the real reason for the existence of the temporary provision from 2003, as both Ayelet Shaked and Yair Lapid openly admitted this week, is demographic. "There is no need to hide from the essence of this law. It is one of the tools designed to ensure the Jewish majority in the State of Israel," Lapid tweeted. Indeed, it is better to look this fact in the face rather than hide from it, because collective discrimination for demographic reasons is precisely why the temporary provision has been so legally precarious for years.

Starting tomorrow morning, if the temporary provision is still not in force thanks to the Likud and its ilk, the Interior Ministry will have to examine each immigration application individually. Many will apply, especially spouses and children who have been living here for many years anyway. One possibility is to grant them residency permits and not necessarily citizenship. Giving a few thousand permits to those already here, and a few hundred more every year, will not really upset the demographic balance and the Jewish character of the State of Israel.

The application process will be drawn out and will be accompanied by terrible bureaucratic hassles. At the same time, the Right will try to pass the Basic Law on Immigration, which will involve a lengthy and grueling struggle that will generate a necessary national debate regarding fundamental problems in this area. Beyond the Likud's jeering, pleased as they are with themselves for supposedly exposing the coalition's weaknesses, the current situation is an improvement. Not just for the overall results, but for influence on future discourse.

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