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Fragility of Israel’s new government to be tested by Israel’s family reunification law

The law, designed to maintain a Jewish majority in Israel, is up for renewal but facing opposition from rightwingers

Foreign Minister of Yair Lapid with head of the Ra'am party Mansour Abbas in the Knesset assembly hall, June 21, 2021. (Photo: Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Israel’s family reunification law is putting the viability of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s new and fragile coalition government to the test. 

Bennett is in power by a one-seat majority. He has 61 seats, the opposition, led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has 59.

The first chink in the coalition’s armor came when Knesset Member Walid Taha, an Arab Israeli lawmaker from the Islamist Ra’am party that joined the Bennett government, declared on Tuesday that his party would vote against extending the so-called family reunification law if it is presented for a Knesset vote. Taha blasted the law as “racist and anti-democratic.” 

“It cannot in any way or form pass with the votes of Ra’am’s Knesset members. I will continue to oppose this law… and Ra’am will vote against the law in the plenum,” Taha wrote on Twitter. 

What is this law about and why is it considered controversial?

The law, which was passed in 2003, prevents Palestinian Arabs who marry Israeli citizens from automatically receiving Israeli citizenship. The current legislation expires on July 6. Without the political support of the Islamist Ra’am party and the left-wing Labor and Meretz parties, the Bennett government lacks the majority to extend the law. 

The other three Ra’am lawmakers are reportedly willing to compromise on the legislation. However, due to Taha’s total opposition, the Islamist party will likely vote against the legislation.

A meeting between Bennett and Ra’am chief Mansour Abbas on Monday reportedly  ended without any agreement on the legislation issue, according to the Israeli Channel 12. 

The opposition within the coalition to extending the law is not limited to the Islamist Ra’am party. Regional Cooperation Minister Issawi Frej and lawmaker Mossi Raz from the Meretz party and Ibtisam Mara’ana from the Labor party also oppose the legislation in its current form. 

While being widely denounced as “racist” by some Arab and left-wing lawmakers, the family reunification law can only be properly understood within the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict. 

While Israel has stressed that the Arab-Israeli minority is an integral part of Israel, the country simultaneously seeks to preserve its Jewish majority in order to continue existing as a Jewish state.

When and why the law was passed

The family reunification law was passed during the height of the Intifada war against Israel in the early 2000s. The purpose of the law was to address two serious challenges that the Jewish state was facing: demography and security.

Before the law was passed in 2003, tens of thousands of Palestinian Arabs became Israeli citizens by marrying Arab Israelis. The phenomenon of bringing a second wife from the West Bank or Gaza, was particularly common among the Bedouin Israeli community in the Negev Desert where some still practice polygamy although it is illegal in Israel. 

The late PLO leader Yasser Arafat openly encouraged demographic warfare against the Jewish state. Consequently, Israel’s Jewish majority was being eroded by this extensive Arab migration from the West Bank and Gaza.

In addition, Israel was facing a serious security threat with a growing number of citizens linked to hostile terrorist organizations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. 

How could the law potentially undermine Israel’s new government?

While most of the opposition supports the law in principle – including Netanyahu and his Likud party, plus the ultra-Orthodox parties – it has indicated that it would prefer to weaken the Bennett government than to support the extension of the law. 

Consequently, Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz accused the Netanyahu-led opposition for placing political considerations above Israeli security. 

“This law is essential for safeguarding the country’s security and Jewish and democratic character, and security considerations need to be put before all political considerations. Even in difficult times politically, we put Israel before everything,” Gantz stated

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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