Israel’s New Government Fails to Extend Contentious Citizenship Law

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JERUSALEM — In an early setback for Israel’s three-week-old government, it lost a parliamentary vote early on Tuesday to extend a contentious law that effectively bans citizenship or permanent residency for Palestinians from the occupied territories if they marry Israelis.

Fifty-nine lawmakers voted in favor and 59 against, in a draw that was not enough to extend the law, which required a simple majority.

The vote, which occurred after a long and rowdy night of debate, exposed cracks in the diverse and fragile coalition led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a right-winger: 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, eliciting cheers from the opposition.

The law was introduced in 2003 amid the violence of the second Palestinian uprising and must be renewed annually. The renewals had been approved for the past 17 years with an almost automatic parliamentary majority.

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

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

Raam and the left-wing Meretz party had initially refused to support the extension of the law in its current form. Amid last-minute negotiations and filibustering in the early hours of Tuesday, the government proposed a compromise whereby the law would be extended by six months instead of a year and some of the Palestinians already married to Israelis — a small portion of those affected by the law — would receive legal status as temporary residents.

The fall of the law, at least for now, also showed the lengths to which the opposition, led by Mr. Bennett’s conservative predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, was willing to go to embarrass and destabilize the new government and try to bring it down. Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party and its ultra-Orthodox allies voted against extending the law despite having supported it every previous year. Other predominantly Arab nationalist and leftist parties in the opposition also voted against the law, joining the Likud in a rare celebration of a joint victory.

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.

Mr. Bennett accused the opposition on Monday of playing “childish games” to frustrate the coalition and 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!”

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, such as improving the economy and national infrastructure. But it has already proved impossible to avoid more polarizing issues tied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The coalition has already 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.

And a new vote to extend the law can be presented to Israel’s Parliament at a future date if the coalition manages to reach more compromises with the law’s opponents and secure a majority.



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