Israeli government fails to renew controversial law restricting Palestinian spouses from citizenship

Israeli government fails to renew controversial law restricting Palestinian spouses from citizenship
Naftali Bennett’s new coalition government failed to renew a controversial law critics argue is a racist measure aimed at restricting the growth of Israel’s Palestinian minority.
4 min read
The Israeli government's failure to renew the law is viewed as a 'major setback' for nationalist Prime Minister Naftali Bennett [Getty]

Israel’s parliament failed to renew a law that bars Palestinians from extending citizenship or residency rights to spouses from the occupied West Bank and Gaza early on Tuesday, in a tight vote that raised doubts about the viability of the country’s new coalition government.

The 59-59 vote, which came after an all-night session of the Knesset, marked a major setback for Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

The new Israeli leader, who had hoped to find a compromise between his hard-line Yamina party and the dovish factions in his disparate coalition, instead suffered a stinging defeat in a vote he reportedly described as a referendum on the new government.

 The vote means the law is set to expire at midnight on Tuesday.

The Citizenship and Entry into Israel Law was enacted as a temporary measure in 2003, at the height of the second intifada. Under the law, Arab citizens - who comprise a fifth of Israel’s population - have had few if any avenues for bringing spouses from the West Bank and Gaza into Israel. 

Critics, including many left-wing and Palestinian lawmakers, say it's a racist measure aimed at restricting the growth of Israel’s Palestinian minority, while supporters say it’s needed for security purposes and to preserve Israel’s Jewish character.

The law has been renewed annually and appeared to have the support of a large majority in parliament, which is dominated by hard-line nationalist parties.

But former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party and his allies decided to oppose it to embarrass Bennett and harm his coalition, which includes a small Palestinian party.

"With all due respect for this law, the importance of toppling the government is greater," Netanyahu said Monday. 

"This isn't just a law. It’s a law that exposes the fault line in this government, whose purpose is to advance an anti-Zionist agenda."

Bennett proposed a compromise with liberal members of the coalition that would have extended the law by six months while offering residency rights to some 1,600 Arab families, a fraction of those affected. But the measure was defeated, in part because two Palestinian members of the coalition abstained. 

The vote exposed the deep divisions and the fragility of the new government.

The decision gave some hope to Palestinian families that have been affected by the law. 


The law created an array of difficulties for thousands of Palestinian families that span the war-drawn and largely invisible frontiers separating Israel from East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, territories Israel seized in the 1967 war. 

"You want your security, it’s no problem, you can check each case by itself," said Taiseer Khatib, a Palestinian whose wife of more than 15 years from the West Bank city of Jenin must regularly apply for permits to live with him and their three children in Israel.

"There's no need for this collective punishment just because you are Palestinian," he said during a protest outside the Knesset on Monday ahead of the vote.

Male spouses over the age of 35 and female spouses over the age of 25, as well as some humanitarian cases, can apply for the equivalent of a tourist permit, which must be regularly renewed.

The holders of such permits are ineligible for driver's licenses, public health insurance and most forms of employment. Palestinian spouses from Gaza have been completely banned since the Hamas seized power there in 2007.

The law does not apply to the nearly 500,000 Jewish settlers who live in the West Bank, who have full Israeli citizenship. Under Israel’s Law of Return, Jews who come to Israel from anywhere in the world are eligible for citizenship.

Palestinian citizens view the law as one of several forms of discrimination they face in a country that legally defines itself as a Jewish nation-state.

Palestinians who are unable to get permits but try to live with their spouses inside Israel are at risk of deportation. Couples that move to the West Bank live under Israeli military occupation.

The citizenship law also applies to Jewish Israelis who marry Palestinians from the territories, but such unions are extremely rare.