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Government’s Failure to Renew ‘Family Unification Law’ Divides Israelis

For 17 years, the Knesset repeatedly voted to extend a temporary amendment to The Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law that excludes Palestinians who marry Israelis from obtaining fast-tracked Israeli citizenship or permanent residency. However, that streak ended on Tuesday, when Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s new government coalition failed to secure enough votes in the legislature.

The early morning vote ended in a 59-59 tie, and the amendment lapsed at midnight that same day.

The legislation has traditionally been championed by Israel’s right wing, including most of the lawmakers currently sitting in the opposition, as crucial to keeping Israelis safe and ensuring a Jewish-majority population.

“It is specifically, admittedly, directed toward citizens of enemy countries, in this instance the Palestinian Authority, which by the way kills Jews and doesn’t negotiate for peace and is considered enemy territory,” Yisrael Medad, former director of educational programming and information at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem, told The Media Line regarding the security aspect of the law.

On the demographic aspect of the legislation, he said regarding Palestinians: “Until the issue of refugees, which is a final status issue … has been resolved, I don’t think Israel should let in thousands of people simply because they married an Israeli Arab, or Jew for that matter.”

This year, however, most conservative opposition members of the legislative body for the first time voted against the law, including former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, chairman of the Likud party, and Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionism party, despite the fact that they consider it important to Israel’s security.

Their vote, however, was born more of political considerations than of ideology, Medad said, as the failure to extend the amendment deals a major blow to the government coalition.

I don’t think Israel should let in thousands of people simply because they married an Israeli Arab, or Jew for that matter

“It’s politics,” Medad said of the former prime minister. “Now that he is in the opposition, he thinks his first job is bringing down the government, because as soon as he does, it seems he’ll make a better law.”

However, Medad contends, Netanyahu had ample opportunity to improve the legislation as the longest-serving head of government in Israel’s history.

“That he didn’t make a better law earlier is no surprise,” he said. “Mr. Netanyahu has been very lackadaisical in pursuing strong policies on issues of defense and national identity.”

Meanwhile, there is ideological opposition to the law from some Israelis.

“This law was illegal, blatantly discriminatory, restricting citizens and residents in who they could marry and form a family with,” Jessica Montell, executive director of HaMoked: Center for the Defence of the Individual, an Israeli nongovernmental organization that furnishes legal aid to Palestinians, told The Media Line. “We were fighting against the law and assisting its victims for the past 18 years and, from our perspective, it’s long past the time for this law to have been abolished.”

“It’s not a regular law because they knew it was so problematic and would not withstand High Court scrutiny. Each year it was passed as a one-year law,” she added.

This law was illegal, blatantly discriminatory, restricting citizens and residents in who they could marry and form a family with

With the expiration of the amendment first passed in 2003, the 1952 Entry into Israel Law, which treats all marriages by Israelis to foreigners equally, is now in full effect, Montell said.

“What the law did was make a distinction if I, as a citizen of Israel, marry a German or marry a Palestinian, so that two different laws would govern my ability to live with my spouse” in Israel, she said of the expired legislation.

“What this means is that young couples who have been prohibited from living together [in Israel] can go to the Ministry of Interior now and ask for a temporary status, as the family unification is a graduated process,” Montell added.

The lapsed legislation did not give Israelis, mostly younger ones, the legal right to live with their spouse in Israel if their partner was a Palestinian male under the age of 35 or a Palestinian female under 25.

Older couples, she said, had to go to the Interior Ministry every year to get their stay permits renewed, and received no benefits, for example National Insurance Institute payments.

Older couples who have been renewing permits annually for the last five years now have the right to ask the ministry to grant permanent residency or citizenship to the non-Israeli spouse, Montell said.

This change has been immediately felt, especially by Arab east Jerusalemites married to Palestinians from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, she said. Nearly all Arab east Jerusalemites already have permanent resident status, while some hold Israeli citizenship.

“Their spouse can go today” to the Interior Ministry, Montell said. “We’ve already sent letters on behalf of our clients saying these people are entitled to permanent residency.”