Israel’s new left-right coalition has suffered its first defeat in the Knesset.
Amichai Chikli, a member of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s Yamina (Rightward) party, sided with the largely conservative opposition to block an extension of the family reunification law.
Two members of the governing United Arab List, known by its Hebrew acronym Ra’am, abstained, arguing a proposed compromise, which would have granted residency to some 1,600 Palestinian families, did not go far enough.
Without their support, the vote ended in a 59-59 tie, which means the law expires.
Under the 2003 law, Palestinians do not automatically qualify for Israeli citizenship or residency when they marry an Israeli.
Bennett defended the law on national security grounds, saying, “The nation needs control over who comes in.”
His liberal deputy and foreign minister, Yair Lapid, was more frank:
There is no need to hide from the essence of the reunification law. It is one of the tools designed to ensure a Jewish majority in the State of Israel.
The Times of Israel reports that in the years before the law was enacted, some 130,000 Palestinians entered Israel through family reunification.
The stated prime concern at the time was that some Palestinians gaining Israeli status would engage in terrorism, but there was also a demographic goal: The security establishment assesses that some 200,000 Palestinians would gain Israeli citizenship or residency each decade were it not for this legislation.
That is why former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud and the far-right Religious Zionist Party supported the law in principle. But they still voted against extending it on Tuesday in an attempt to destabilize the Bennett-Lapid government.
Paper over the cracks
The ruling coalition, which is barely one month old, counts eight parties, ranging from the far left to the pro-settler right and including — for the first time — a party representing Israel’s Arab minority.
What brought them together was opposition to Netanyahu, who is facing trial on three separate counts of bribery and fraud. As long as Netanyahu remains in politics, Michael Koplow, policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, expects the coalition will do everything it can to paper over its internal cracks.
Koplow has more reasons not to bet against Bennett and Lapid:
- If snap elections were held, many of the parties in power would collapse. For the center-right, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to govern without kowtowing to Netanyahu and Likud.
- For the left, this government is an escape from what had started to look like permanent opposition.
- For Ra’am, keeping the coalition together is the best way to prove it can deliver concrete benefits to its constituents, which in turn would prove there is a place for Arabs in Israeli politics.
- Lapid’s liberal party is up in the polls, but he has no incentive to destroy a government that is his own creation.
This all adds up to a government that will try hard to stick to narrow issues of consensus and avoid hurdles that may prove insurmountable, according to Koplow.
Whereas Netanyahu and Likud will, of course, do their best to raise such hurdles.