In recent weeks, Israeli politicians have been fighting over the fate of legislation impacting whether Palestinian families can live together inside of Israel’s borders, and dealing with the attendant controversy that has ensued. The controversy and the criticism of Israeli policy is only heightened by the fact that this issue is important, is highly emotional, and has easily grasped real world consequences for the people it impacts, no matter which side one lands on. As with controversies of this sort, the outrage–at Israel’s policy, at the rhetoric employed, and at the parties on each side of the issue–has been through the roof, and obscured the fact that much of what everyone thinks they know about the issue is less straightforward than the outrage machine would have you believe.
The controversy is over the renewal of Israel’s Citizenship and Entry Law, which was passed in 2003 as a one year regulation and has been renewed through a Knesset vote every year since. The law was crafted as a security response to the Second Intifada and suicide terrorism against Israelis emanating from the Palestinian Territories, and initially barred any Palestinian from the West Bank or Gaza from obtaining Israeli citizenship or permanent residency in Israel, and was then amended in 2005 to allow men over 35 and women over 25 to apply for residency permits. The reason that the law is often referred to as the family unification law is because it effectively keeps families apart when an Israeli citizen marries a Palestinian from the West Bank or Gaza and the spouse cannot obtain residency, let alone citizenship, in Israel. Given that these marriages almost always involve Israeli Arabs rather than Israeli Jews, the law has been heavily criticized for specifically impacting non-Jewish Israelis despite being written neutrally, similar to the law that allows for recovering property in East Jerusalem that has been at issue in Sheikh Jarrah.
The Citizenship and Entry Law’s expiration date was July 6, and despite it passing every year with ease, its future was murky as the deadline to renew it approached, having nothing to do with the law itself and everything to do with Israeli political maneuvering. Some of the parties in the new coalition–Ra’am and Meretz–are opposed to the law on ideological grounds, and did not want to vote to extend it. Given the composition of the Knesset, this should not have prevented the law from being extended, but the opposition led by Binyamin Netanyahu decided to vote against the extension despite supporting the policy as a way of embarrassing the new government and tarring it as being in thrall to the left. Nevertheless, a compromise was reached between the coalition’s parties that would have extended the law for six months, given residency visas to 1,600 Palestinians currently impacted by the law, and established a committee to examine the law going forward and how to balance it with humanitarian concerns. This all ended up going for naught when Amichai Chikli, the Yamina MK who voted against the government during its installation vote, again voted with the opposition against the law’s extension, leading to a 59-59 tie.
Despite the fact that the law has existed for nearly two decades, there was not much international focus on it until its renewal this year, and much of the criticism of the law was directed at the idea that Israel would not grant automatic citizenship or residency to Palestinian spouses of Israeli citizens. Setting aside that anything having to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict always generates outsized volumes of outrage, this particular criticism elides the fact that it is standard practice for countries to set some sort of standard for spousal residency and citizenship rather than grant it automatically. In the U.S., for example, if a citizen marries a foreign national, the non-citizen spouse first must establish a valid marriage, apply for an immigrant visa, go through a medical exam and a green card interview, and wait for the green card to be approved before coming to live in the U.S. This typically takes between a year and a year and a half, and it is then another three years before the green card-holding spouse can apply for citizenship. In Japan, a non-citizen spouse has to have been married to a citizen for at least three years and lived in Japan without interruption for at least one year under temporary visas to be eligible to become a permanent resident; becoming a citizen requires five years of continued residence in Japan, demonstrating good moral character and financial stability, and giving up citizenship in any other country.
I point this out not to defend the particulars of the Israeli law, but to put it into context. The notion that Israel is oppressively racist for not granting automatic permanent residency or citizenship to spouses of Israeli citizens ignores the nature of residency and citizenship laws across the globe. That does not make Israel’s version of it automatically justified, but criticism of Israel for having such a law at all is an example of shooting first and aiming later. If Israel automatically granted permanent residency or citizenship to foreign spouses of Israeli citizens, then it would be the outlier.
What makes the comically broad criticism of the Israeli law even more misplaced is that there are plenty of narrower reasons to take exception to the law preventing family unifications outside of the mere fact that it exists. For starters, the law was passed during Israel’s most severe security challenge in decades, one where literally anyone walking on the street could potentially be seeking to blow up Israeli civilians. But emergency measures become less defensible when the emergency passes, and in a situation where suicide bombings are thankfully absent and where today you have over one hundred thousand Palestinians entering Israel from the West Bank every day–either on work permits or illegally–it is harder to argue that presumptively keeping families apart because a husband or wife hails from the West Bank is a security imperative.
As Dahlia Scheindlin points out, the Shin Bet’s statistics four years ago revealed that between 2001 and 2017, forty seven Palestinians who had Israeli residency through marriage committed terrorist attacks, which is fewer than three per year; this number begins to appear even smaller when taking into account that in the eight years prior to the law’s passage, 135,000 Palestinians received temporary residency or citizenship inside Israel. This week, the Shin Bet’s updated numbers were forty eight Palestinians who received family unification residency or citizenship committing attacks between 2001 and 2021, which makes the perceived threat even less stark. A single terrorist attack is one too many, but when looking at the overall context, a greater balancing of humanitarian concerns with security concerns is both reasonable and justified. There is also no chance of family unifications suddenly overwhelming Israel’s Jewish majority given the numbers involved, which warrants using a scalpel rather than an axe in assessing whether or not to grant residency.
Now that the law is gone, the source of the bulk of the outrage has moved from the law’s critics to the law’s defenders. Accusations of selling out Israel’s security are flying fast and furious, along with dire predictions of Palestinians overwhelming Israel’s Jewish majority. Those who have long opposed the law are celebrating, personified by a viral picture of Ayman Odeh, Ahmed Tibi, and other Joint List MKs flashing victory signs in the Knesset when the extension did not garner a majority. But the outrage and the celebrating are both premature and unwarranted.
Even without the law, there is no automatic permanent residency for Palestinians who marry an Israeli. The process still requires applying for a visa, then a temporary residency permit, then permanent residency. More saliently, every single application for family unification is subject to the approval of Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, who was the staunchest proponent of extending the law and is expected to keep its provisions in place through her ministerial authority and effectively deny residency and citizenship applications. While such a move will inevitably be challenged and may end up before Israel’s Supreme Court, it is worth noting that the court has upheld the law itself on two separate occasions. The upshot is that the entire drama that has played out over the past couple of weeks may end up changing nothing, with Palestinians who seek to live with their families inside of Israel subject to the endless bureaucratic holdups and lack of answers that characterizes many of their other dealings with Israeli authorities.
Amidst all the sound and fury, the practical implication of what happened in the Knesset on Tuesday for a change in policy is close to nil. If you think that the Citizenship and Entry Law is critical to Israel’s security, you will be happy to know that its provisions will outlive it. If you think that the Citizenship and Entry Law is a black mark on Israeli democracy, you will unfortunately not find the problem to be rectified. There is plenty about all of this over which to be outraged, but both sides have spent their time being outraged over the wrong things.