Three weeks after its formation, the new Israeli government has failed in its first real test. It has not been able to pass the annual extension of the law that denies the unification of Palestinian families across the Green Line. There was a tie: 59 Knesset members voted for the law while 59 opposed it, with two abstentions. This is considered a powerful blow to the Bennet-Lapid government that relies on a brittle and incoherent coalition of only 61 Knesset members out of a total of 120.
This coalition is composed of eight parties that span the political spectrum from the extreme Zionist left to the extreme right and includes, for the first time, an independent Arab party, the United Arab List, which is the political arm of the Southern Islamic Movement. The government also includes parties that demand an intensification of settlement activities and others that call for freezing settlements and even for dismantling them. It includes parties that call for annexing expansive areas of the West Bank and others that call for ending the occupation. There are those in this coalition that stick to annexing the Golan Heights and those that call for withdrawing from them. There are within it those that plan to deepen the Judaization of Jerusalem and consider it to be Israel's eternal capital and there are those who consider East Jerusalem the capital of the Palestinian state. There are those who uphold the rights of homosexuals and those that consider them to be deviants who should be shunned. And the list goes on. Yet, what matters, in the end, is the actual decisions made by the government and not the individual positions of the parties. Clearly, it is rather difficult for the new Israeli cabinet to make decisions; and this poses a real threat to its very existence.
The recent voting over this dangerous and important law bears numerous ironies. First and foremost, those that support the law voted against it while its opponents voted for it. Netanyahu led the right-wing opposition to vote against the law which it was he himself that proposed it repeatedly. He did so in order to embarrass the incumbent coalition and destabilise the government. In light of the disparity in positions within the ruling coalition, it was not strange for the law prohibiting the unification of Palestinian families to fail. What is truly strange is that the deputies of the United List and Meretz, who had announced dozens of times that they were against the law as a matter of principle, did not hesitate to vote for it in practice. Following the failure of the law, the powers of granting residence and citizenship end up in the hands of the extremist right-wing Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, who may make matters even tougher than they already are. In the meantime, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Benet announced that he would soon propose the law once more after guaranteeing it would be passed by the Knesset. The law of preventing family unification is especially important for the Jewish state; it is the mirror image of the law of return that grants immediate citizenship to any Jew anywhere in the world that asks for it.
What is the law prohibiting family unification?
This law was legislated in the Knesset in 2003 on the basis of an allegation supported by the Israeli Shabak claiming that children of families that live within Israel, whereby one of the partners is from the West Bank or from the Gaza Strip, take part in the execution of bombing operations, and that granting residence or citizenship to these families poses an imminent threat to security. In a meeting of a government team working on the law, Ariel Sharon, the then Prime Minister of Israel, rebuked the Shabak representatives and said to them: "Why are you using security pretexts. The problem is fundamentally demographic. We simply want to preserve a Jewish majority in the state." In effect, the law prohibits the granting of permanent or temporary residence within the Green Line or inside Jerusalem to a Palestinian man or woman that hails from the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. Subsequently, five countries were also added. They are Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Iran. The law states that a committee should be formed to look into humanitarian cases. However, it includes a clause that renders its role obsolete. The official law of the state that claims to be democratic states that "the fact that the relative of the applicant is the husband or the wife, and that the couple has common children, is not a humanitarian case." This implies that the Palestinians is not like other human beings. His or her separation from his or her partner is not a humanitarian case according to the Israeli legislator. What really matters is that this is not a mere casual racist Israeli position but the text of official law.
This Israeli law intervenes in the relationship between man and woman and throws Palestinian love outside the law. Gideon Ezra, a former head of the Shabak and a former Kadima member of the Knesset, claimed that Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line have affairs and get married as part of a conspiracy against the state of Israel. There are today 45,000 Palestinian families that are composed of couples who hail from within the Green Line or from Jerusalem on the one hand and from the West Bank, the Gaza Strip or Arab states on the other. These families suffer the consequences of this law including deprivation of health insurance rights, denial of driving licences and denial of the right to movement etc. There are, of course, tens of thousands who have refrained from marriage fearing that they would end up suffering similarly should they defy the Jewish state with their Palestinian love. You cannot imagine the number of potential relations that have been made impossible by this law. The law prohibiting unification is one of the most dangerous and most racist laws in Israel. All human rights groups and the overwhelming majority of government institutions and world media agree that this is a racist law par excellence and has no parallel anywhere else in the world, not even in the South African apartheid regime, where the supreme court there rejected a decision to separate spouses in accordance with the law that restricts residence in the apartheid state, by stressing that the right to establish a family has precedence over all those laws.
The position of the United List
It goes without saying that the Palestinians within the Green Line suffer as a result of the law prohibiting family unification and oppose it vehemently. Therefore, there was a wave of outright outrage when some Arab members of the Knesset voted in favour of the law in order to preserve the "unity" of the ruling coalition in which they participate. United List deputies Mansour Abbas and Walid Taha (from the Southern Islamic Movement) both voted in favour of the law while two deputies from the same list abstained. The law was also supported by the three Arab deputies from Meretz and Labour parties. Naturally, the six deputies of the Joint List voted against the law as they always did every year when the Israeli government proposed an extension of its duration.
This disparity in the Arab votes within the Knesset stirred up controversy among the Palestinians within the Green Line. The United List was accused that by voting in favour or by abstaining, it was relinquishing the national principles in exchange for feeble and illusory gains. What added to the anger toward such a stance was the fact that did not come as part of a one-time tactic but rather as part of a continuing trend. The United List is a fully obligated member of the ruling coalition and bears responsibility for whatever it is doing, including the flags procession in Jerusalem, the bombing of Gaza, the storming of Al-Aqsa, the Evyatar settlement deal (keeping the settlement while temporarily removing the settlers from it) and finally the law of prohibiting unification.
It is not clear until when the leadership of the United List can remain a partner in the coalition. Should it withdraw, the government would lose its parliamentary majority and pave the way before an alternative government coalition or for early elections. In fact, the United List is keen on keeping the current right-wing government. It has tied its fate with it in terms of obtaining special privileges in exchange for voting in support of the government. It may be concluded that the United List will be compelled to withdraw from the government only in the case of enormous events that force it to acquiesce to the will of the Palestinian street within the green line, such as "a major massacre in Gaza, or imposing a time and place division within the Al-Aqsa Mosque, or a mass demolition of houses within the Green Line." I have placed this sentence within inverted commas because I heard it directly. When the United List claims that it is principally opposed to the law, this is an excuse that is worse than the sin itself, as many people believe.
It rejects the law, yet it votes for it
As for the Meretz party, which represents remnants of the Zionist left, it voted in favour of the law although it opposes it and has been opposing it throughout the past years because it finds it to be inconsistent with basic human rights it claims to uphold and defend and is keen to see the Jewish state "a model for preserving human rights." Several years ago, Meretz went to the Israeli Supreme Court to demand the abolition of the law considering it to be unconstitutional and inconsistent with the principles included in "the founding laws" that have constitutional status in Israel. Yet, Meretz six deputies, including two Arabs (Isawi Fraij and Ghaida Rinawi) are in favour of the law. The Meretz constituency did not show much anger toward such deviation from the party's declared stances and principles for one simple reason, hating Netanyahu and fearing his return to power should the government fall. Meretz has also vehemently opposed the flags procession and the Evyatar settlement deal, though it remained within the government and preferred to preserve the existing coalition fearing the Netanyahu bogeyman.
Until when will Meretz be able to remain within the government? Can it remain inside a government that is characteristically right-wing and racist while it keeps boasting day and night about what it regards the principles of the left, human rights, ending the occupation and the two-state solution? Here, in my opinion, Meretz is shielding behind the United List in whatever pertains to the Palestinians of the Green Line and will not oppose anything that is agreeable to the List or something it maintains silence about. On the other hand, the United List shields Meretz in matters pertaining to settlement and occupation and it would not shatter the clay pot until Meretz shatters it. Yet, Meretz ability to "swallow frogs" is limited no matter how big its appetite for power happens to be. It has issues that matter more to it than it does to others such as the question of rejecting religious enforcement regarding the Sabbath, the question of secular representation within Israeli society and the question of homosexuals (party leader Nitzan Horowitz is openly gay). So, at some point, Meretz might be the source of breaking the government's back and bringing it down.
A personal experience
We Palestinians, and with us there are others, often find it difficult to convince the world of what we suffer under Israeli apartheid. However, I have found through personal experience that the shortest, easiest and most useful way to make the point would be to submit official documents that support what we say. Perhaps one of the strongest proofs to the racist regime in Israel is the accurate translation from Hebrew into English of the text of the laws. I have found that the translation of the law that prohibits family unifications and the Nation State law are so convincing, without elaboration, to anyone with a living conscience in this world. Many could not believe what they were reading and many said "this is apartheid."
Translated from Aljarmaq, 12 July 2021
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.