Israel’s New Government Fails to Extend Contentious Citizenship Law

JERUSALEM — In a setback for Israel’s three-week-old government, it failed to muster a majority on Tuesday to extend a contentious law that effectively bans citizenship or permanent residency for Palestinians from the occupied territories who marry Israelis.

The law was introduced in 2003 amid the violence of the second Palestinian uprising and must be renewed annually, which has happened for the past 17 years with an almost automatic parliamentary majority.

But this time, some members of the diverse and fragile coalition led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a right-winger, refused to extend it. Two members of Raam, the Arab Islamist party that forms part of the governing coalition, abstained. One rebel member of Mr. Bennett’s Yamina party voted against the government.

They were joined by the opposition Likud party, led by Mr. Bennett’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, and its ultra-Orthodox allies, who voted against extension in an effort to embarrass and destabilize the new government, even though they had supported extending the law every previous year.

Israeli officials have argued that the law is necessary for security reasons, but some have also acknowledged that it is a demographic tool to help Israel maintain its Jewish majority.

During a long debate over the law on Monday, Mr. Bennett accused the opposition of playing “childish games” to score political points instead of showing “national responsibility.”

“There are things you don’t play around with,” Mr. Bennett said. “The state must control who is allowed to enter and who is granted citizenship.”

Mr. Netanyahu retorted: “They say: ‘Show responsibility.’ Where is your responsibility in establishing such a government? You have formed a government that, for the first time in Israel’s history, is dependent on anti-Zionist forces!”

Mr. Netanyahu’s allies turned the vote into a no-confidence motion at the last minute, but that required an absolute majority of 61 in the 120-seat Parliament to pass, and the government survived.

The failure to renew the law reflected the difficulties in managing a government made up of eight parties spanning the political spectrum from left to right and including, for the first time, an independent Arab Islamist party.

The new government, which came together with the primary goal of unseating Mr. Netanyahu after 12 consecutive years in office, initially said it intended to focus on issues that command a broad consensus in Israeli society, like improving the economy and national infrastructure. But it has proved impossible to avoid more polarizing issues.

The coalition has had to deal with challenges from Jewish nationalists who insisted on holding a flag march through a predominantly Palestinian area of Jerusalem, and from Jewish settlers who established an unauthorized outpost in the occupied West Bank.

The failure to extend the citizenship law was not expected to have any dramatic or immediate impact on the thousands of families already affected by it, or on future unions. The interior minister, Ayelet Shaked, from Mr. Bennett’s hard-right party, Yamina, will still have the authority to deny citizenship or residency to individuals on a case-by-case basis.

A new vote to extend the law can be presented to Israel’s Parliament at a future date.

Opponents of the law call it racist and discriminatory against the Israelis most affected — the country’s Palestinian Arab citizens — by denying them the basic freedom to marry whomever they choose and attain legal status for their spouses.

Aida Touma-Sliman, a Palestinian Arab member of the opposition in Parliament, described the law on Monday as a “moral and political disgrace” that enshrined “Jewish supremacy.”

“We hope that the law will be buried today without ceremony,” she said, “so that our people can choose whom to love and with whom to live.”

The law made some exceptions and allowed spouses from the occupied territories who are above a certain age to apply for temporary permits to join their partners and children in Israel. But even after many years in Israel, such spouses live with uncertainty and lack basic social rights, like the ability to obtain a license to drive or health insurance.

According to HaMoked: Center for the Defense of the Individual, an Israeli human rights group that has called for the revocation of the law, more than 9,000 families in Israel and in East Jerusalem are affected by it.

Yair Lapid, Israel’s centrist foreign minister, openly acknowledged the underlying goal of the law on Monday.

“There is no need to hide from the essence of this law,” he wrote on Twitter. “It is one of the tools meant to ensure a Jewish majority in the state of Israel. Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people and our goal is for it to have a Jewish majority. In addition, the law is important for security.”

Data presented to a parliamentary committee last year showed that during the last 20 years, several dozen Palestinians had abused their access through marriage to carry out an attack or assist an attacker. The number had dropped to zero by last year, though the offspring from such unions were involved in several attacks in recent years.

Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud plans to promote a more permanent basic law on immigration next week.

Janelle B. Smith

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