Coalition Suffers Defeat as Knesset Votes Down Citizenship Law

A discussion on the Family Reunification Law, during a plenum session in the assembly hall of the Knesset, early Tuesday. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A citizenship bill that would replace a temporary order regulating the status and residency of Palestinian spouses of Arab Israelis was voted down in the Knesset early Tuesday morning following a tie of 59-59.

This means that the law will expire later Tuesday. The deadline for re-extending the legislation is midnight on Tuesday.

Thus, the new government faced its first big defeat. The law was the first major political test for Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who for nearly a month now has been heading a narrow and diverse coalition that includes left-wing, centrist and Arab parties, along with his own party.

And he came up short in the early morning vote, failing to secure a simple majority in parliament to extend the so-called Citizenship and Entry Into Israel Law, and underscoring his government’s fragility.

Israel first passed the law in 2003, during the height of a Palestinian uprising, saying Palestinians who married Israeli citizens used their legal status to help carry out attacks against Israel.

It was enacted for one year and has been extended on an annual basis.

Netanyahu, who calls Bennett’s government a threat to Israel’s security, refused to give him a lifeline and voted against it.

At the moment of truth, two of Ra’am’s four MKs supported the bill, while two others abstained, but Yamina MK Amichai Chikli voted against, joining the opposition in voting against the motion. While the Likud and Religious Zionism opposition parties support the law in principle, they voted against extending it, along with Shas and UTJ and the Joint List, to embarrass the government.

Chikli had in the past declared he opposes the new coalition. But he had then said he would vote with the coalition on most matters, seemingly giving it a cushion.

Minutes before the vote, the Cabinet announced that the vote on the bill would in effect be a vote of confidence in the new government and that if the bill fell, so would the government.

At 2:40 a.m., Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked presented a compromise agreement, according to which the temporary order, which thus far has been renewed on an annual basis, would be extended for just six months, until January 2022.

The opposition rejected Shaked’s compromise, arguing that any alterations to the original temporary order needed to be presented two months ahead of the Knesset vote. This led to an uproar, and the opposition ultimately appealed to the Knesset legal counsel for an opinion.

Shaked pointed out that understandings secured by the coalition, not in any written agreement, would grant immediate approval for 1,600 requests for family reunification for Palestinian spouses of Arab Israeli citizens.

Earlier, Shaked and Ra’am leader MK Mansour Abbas discussed the matter of the citizenship law. Abbas also met with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in an attempt to reach a compromise.

Hours before the vote, MK Yisrael Katz (Likud) posted: “While the Likud is weighing its vote on the matter of the citizenship bill, we were informed that the government has promised Ra’am it will gloss over the entry of another 1,800 Palestinian families. My position is to vote against the bill and the anti-Zionist deal between Shaked and Abbas. However, we will promote a Basic Law about entry to Israel that will completely prevent any Palestinian ‘right of return.'”

Speaking in the Knesset plenum, Opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu attacked Bennett and Shaked.

“Bennett and Shaked say they have formed a ‘Zionist government,’ but they aren’t capable of passing such a simple law because they’re dependent on anti-Zionist entities that oppose Israel being a Jewish, democratic state,” Netanyahu said.

“The responsible, correct thing to do is to pass a Basic Law on immigration, today, in a preliminary vote, and postpone extending the temporary order by two months, which will lead to a solution to the issue,” Netanyahu continued.

Netanyahu reached out to Bennett and Lapid, telling them, “Don’t expect us to save you from anti-Zionist entities,” referring to factions in the coalition that oppose the law.

“Bennett wants us to come along but feel like we aren’t there,” Netanyahu said. “To be prime minister with six mandates, Bennett made a hash of things. He gave things to Meretz, to Ra’am, to Lapid, to the Labor Party, and for whom was nothing left? The Right.”

The Likud party feted the achievement. “A corrupt deal reached in the middle of the night between Bennett, [Foreign Minister Yair] Lapid and Shaked and Ra’am and Meretz has collapsed due to a determined battle waged by the opposition, led by Netanyahu,” the statement said. “Bennett and Lapid wanted to buy two Ra’am votes in exchange for allowing thousands of Palestinians to enter, endangering Israel’s Zionist identity.”

Betzalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party similarly slammed the compromise deal, alleging that Bennett and Shaked had “sold out the State of Israel” and “agreed to grant Palestinians the ‘right of return’ in several installments.” It blasted Yamina for trying to reach agreements with “terror supporters” rather than with the opposition.

UTJ’s MK Rabbi Yaakov Litzman said that “tonight the people of Israel have been proven what we have known for a month: a Reform government that has declared war on Judaism and the sanctuaries of Israel has no right to exist and no siyatta d’Shmaya.

“The Bennett-Lapid government has no public support and has no majority in the Knesset. This is a dangerous coalition, and has no ability to govern.

“We fought together, United Torah Judaism and Shas, and together with the entire right-wing bloc, against the malicious government of Bennett-Lapid-Lieberman, and we will continue to be a militant opposition against it, day and night, until we soon overthrow it, b’ezras Hashem.”

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