When the Knesset dissolved after Israel’s then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a government in May of 2019, Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh delivered a tongue-in-cheek speech enumerating the compromises Bibi would be willing to make in order to hold onto power. Netanyahu, Odeh claimed, would support a withdrawal from the occupied territories and full civil equality for Israeli Arabs. Of course, Odeh was joking, but, boy, was he ever spot on.

On Tuesday, Opposition Leader Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, the far-right Religious Zionist alliance, and the pro-Netanyahu haredi parties, voted with the communists and Arab nationalists of the Joint List to sink Israel’s Citizenship and Entry Law, which was the subject of criticism for its implications for Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza who married Israeli citizens. The policy, nominally imposed as a temporary measure during the Second Intifada and regularly extended since 2003, denied residents of the Palestinian Territories, including those with Israeli spouses, the same pathway to residency and citizenship available to other foreign-born spouses of Israeli citizens. On the other side, right-wing Israeli politicians and some centrists defended the law on the basis of security and demographics. 

The actual debate is a subject for another piece, although I do not personally think arguments in the law’s favor hold up today. With that being said, anyone with a passing knowledge of Israeli politics can see why Netanyahu would support the law, which he did as prime minister, and why Ayman Odeh would oppose it, so it’s important to unpack how the seemingly mismatched alignment between the pro-Likud bloc and the Joint List happened and what it says about Israeli politics (hint: the explanation may lie in U.S. politics).

After years of supporting the Citizenship and Entry Law themselves, the Likud, the radical right religious Zionists, and the ultra-Orthodox did not suddenly find common cause with the Israeli Arabs, leftists, and human rights organizations who long sought to change that policy. The deposed prime minister was motivated out of spite for his successor, Naftali Bennett, whose ideologically disparate coalition includes some of the staunchest proponents of extending the law. Netanyahu is now using the law’s defeat to demonstrate the new government’s supposed failings even though he was instrumental in producing that outcome; it is the absurd political equivalent of telling someone “stop punching yourself” when you are the one throwing the punches.

Whatever inspired Netanyahu’s actions, the consequences are the same: after nearly eighteen years, the controversial Citizenship and Entry Law will not be extended. While the story is not completely over—Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked could deny citizenship and residency applications individually, and the government could in turn wind up in court—it’s worth asking how Netanyahu and his allies reconcile their behavior with their ideology.

A similar picture emerged in American politics over the last half-decade. As a presidential candidate and during his years in office, Donald Trump and his allies would burnish their “tough on crime” credentials while dog whistling to white nationalists. But Trump, who (somewhat hyperbolically) described himself as the best president for black Americans since Abraham Lincoln, also liked to frame himself as a criminal justice reformer, with legislation like the First Step Act, and individual high-profile pardons. Similarly, Trump continued the Republican Party’s alliance with religious conservatives, while also embracing plaudits proclaiming him “the most pro-gay president” in U.S. history. Leaving aside for a moment the substance of what Trump actually did versus what he said, most of Trump’s Republican colleagues saw no dissonance in the positions the president was taking. Some even tried to leverage Trump’s rhetoric to frame their Democratic Party rivals’ support for liberal causes as insufficient or disingenuous. 

Republican politics became extremely personalized under Trump. The GOP can defend positions seemingly incongruous with a conventional read on American conservatism because the right-left axis is defined by what Trump says. If Trump gives it his blessing, it is right-wing. If not, it’s not right-wing. This was so much the case that in lieu of adopting a new platform in 2020, the Republican Party simply readopted the 2016 version and vowed, in very broad strokes, to continue to support Trump’s agenda. 

The same can be said for right-wing politics in Israel during Netanyahu’s last few years in office. If an anti-Netanyahu coalition includes an Israeli Arab party or depends upon the votes of Arab Knesset members, it represents an existential threat. If Netanyahu votes with the Joint List, it isn’t even worth remarking on. Criticisms of Netanyahu from Prime Minister Bennett and Interior Minister Shaked, both right-wingers in the conventional sense, may be sincerely felt, but they misread what right-wing means in the Israeli context.

Generally, this kind of conduct is bad for anyone who wants a more substantive politics. However, there is an opening here for change-minded Israeli lawmakers. Netanyahu will cast anything the government does in a negative light, even as his cynical politicking sometimes brings him into alignment with the leftmost end of the ideological spectrum. Since what constitutes right-wing revolves around what Netanyahu does, there is no reason for the government to operate in fear of the opposition leader. The next time Netanyahu says there is something wrong with working with the left or supporting Arab citizens of Israel, his opponents need only refer to his record.