Why did Netanyahu vote against a law he wholly embraces?

Netanyahu had his Likud party vote against the citizenship law to embarrass the new Israeli government.

Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party voted against renewing the Citizenship and Entry Law that prohibits family unification among Palestinians [File: AP/Ariel Schalit]

On July 6, the Israeli Knesset failed to renew the Citizenship and Entry Law that prohibits family unification among Palestinians. This is good news. But the suspension of the law was accomplished for all of the wrong reasons.

Racist to the core, this apartheid law not only bars Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza from receiving Israeli citizenship or residency following their marriage to a Palestinian citizen of Israel, but it also forbids them from moving to Israel to live with their Palestinian spouses.

First introduced in 2003, the Citizenship and Entry Law was initially framed as a temporary measure enacted to help ensure security. Former Interior Minister Avraham Poraz from the liberal party Meretz who oversaw the passage of the 2003 legislation, noted recently that the law “passed at a time when buses were blowing up across the country”.

Poraz is not an honest man. He knows full well that framing the law as a “temporary security measure” to prevent “Palestinian terrorists” from moving to Israel was vital, since the prohibitions inscribed in this law contradict Israel’s Basic Law for Human Dignity and Freedom and would have likely been annulled by the Supreme Court had it been cast as permanent.

Demographic engineering

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid is much more honest in this respect, and thus he did not hesitate to reveal the real motivation for renewing the law each year. He recently told the media that the Citizenship and Entry Law “is one of the tools designed to ensure the Jewish majority of the State of Israel,” adding that: “Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people and our goal is that it should have a Jewish majority.”

He knows that laws like this one play a crucial role in demographic engineering, thwarting what Israeli political parties from Labor on the left to Likud on the right regard as the Palestinian “demographic threat”.

Just to give some perspective: in the decade from 1993 until 2003 around 130,000 Palestinians, including children, were given Israeli citizenship or residency through family unification. What this means, then, is that for almost two decades the law has succeeded in not only denying Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza citizenship and residency, but it has also effectively torn thousands of Palestinian families apart, often wrenching children away from one of their parents.

A law like this can become legitimate within Israel because ethnicity rather than citizenship serves as the main determinant for allocating rights, power and resources. Ethnicity, moreover, functions as a proxy for nationality, so that citizens are not registered by the government as “Israeli”, but rather as either “Jew” or “Arab”. This is key, since it enables the Israeli government to distinguish among citizens, providing first-class citizenship to Jews and second-class citizenship to “Arabs”.

Taking into account that over 80 percent of the Israeli Knesset agree with these distinctions and therefore also support the “Citizenship and Entry” law, why, one might ask, did Prime Minister Naftali Bennett fail to pass it?

‘Naming and shaming’

The reason is straightforward. Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu – who is furious for being ousted from power after serving 12 years as prime minister and is afraid of going to jail on corruption charges – instructed all of the members of the opposition to vote against a law that they, themselves, have vehemently supported since it was first introduced.

His goal was to show the Jewish Israeli public that the new prime minister, who prides himself as being even more right-wing than his predecessor, could not even muster the necessary votes to extend the Citizenship and Entry Law for another year.

Netanyahu’s objective is not really to impede Citizenship and Entry Law, but to create a wedge within the coalition. Thus, to augment Bennett’s embarrassment, Netanyahu’s minions are also proposing to legislate a Basic Law for immigration that cannot be overridden and would serve as a permanent measure preventing Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza from obtaining citizenship. The new Israeli opposition leader knows that such a law is unacceptable to the Ra’am party, which is a member of Bennett’s unwieldy coalition, and hopes it will undermine the government.

The twisted irony of this whole saga is that former Prime Minister Netanyahu is using the same kind of “naming and shaming” strategy that human rights organisations deploy. But while rights organisations aim to “out” governments that violate the basic human rights of populations within the territory they control, Netanyahu is mobilising the “naming and shaming” strategy to embarrass the new government for not passing an apartheid law.

Those who cannot carry out crimes of apartheid including the separation of spouses and children from their parents are, in his perverse world, unworthy of remaining in power.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.