Argument

Trump Doesn’t Care About Israel. He Cares About Reelection.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s capitulation to the White House over Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib’s visit has harmed his country’s image and profoundly endangered bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress.

U.S. Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) hold a news conference on August 19 in St. Paul, Minnesota after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blocked a planned trip by Omar and Tlaib to visit Israel and the West Bank.
U.S. Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) hold a news conference on August 19 in St. Paul, Minnesota after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blocked a planned trip by Omar and Tlaib to visit Israel and the West Bank. Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

“Over the years,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his host, U.S. President Donald Trump, at the White House on March 25, “Israel has been blessed to have many friends who sat in the Oval Office.” The occasion was Trump’s signing of a proclamation recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. “But Israel,” Netanyahu extolled the U.S. president, “has never had a better friend than you.”

Trump’s frequent invocations of Israel’s name and of his professed friendship for the country leave little doubt that he concurs wholeheartedly with Netanyahu’s judgment. “If I’m elected,” candidate Trump apprised Israel Hayom—the Israeli newspaper widely regarded as Netanyahu’s mouthpiece—in February 2016, “you’ll have a true friend in the White House.”

True friends do not sacrifice each other’s fundamental interests for the sake of their own political ambitions.

That promise rings hollow. True friends, after all, do not sacrifice each other’s fundamental interests for the sake of their own political ambitions. And Trump’s antics last week, when he upended the Netanyahu government’s decision to open Israel’s borders to two of the country’s harshest congressional opponents, have put Israel’s indispensable relationship with the United States at grave risk.

In July, two Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, announced their plans to travel to Israel during the month of August. Tlaib, who is Palestinian American, said that she planned to take her two sons to meet their great-grandmother in “my city” in the West Bank. Omar expressed her intention to “learn more” about the situation on the ground. 

Both congresswomen are outspoken critics of Israeli policy and stand accused of wielding anti-Semitic tropes and associating with terrorist sympathizers. As vocal supporters of the movement to boycott Israel over its treatment of Palestinians, they fall under the purview of a 2017 law—never before activated against U.S. lawmakers—that allows the Israeli government to block their entry into the country. (Other countries, including the United States, have employed similar restrictions.) 

Tlaib and Omar have in the past signaled their disinterest in hearing Israel’s side of the story by adamantly refusing to participate in the tour of the region for new members of Congress organized by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel lobbying group. When Tlaib countered that she would be organizing her own, alternative trip—a “Congressional Delegation to Occupied Territories in Palestine”—it was clear to Israeli officials that her itinerary would be unbalanced and that they would be tarred and feathered during the visit. They reached a consensus of opinion, nonetheless, to let the visit proceed. Doing otherwise would imply that Israel, which prides itself on being a free, democratic country, had something to hide. 

“Out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America,” Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer explained, “we would not deny entry to any member of Congress into Israel.” Israel was aware of the consequences that the malicious tourists might inflict on its image and on public order but wisely resolved to resist the provocation and avoid offending its stalwart partners on Capitol Hill. But Trump had to add fuel to the fire. 

Trump has turned Tlaib and Omar into household names, transforming the popular first-term representatives—together with their fellow new Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley—into lightning rods for the purpose of electrifying his conservative Republican base. Indeed, animosity toward the four progressive legislators has become a key component of his 2020 reelection strategy. He wasn’t about to let Israel give them a kosher stamp.

“It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep.Tlaib to visit,” he taunted Netanyahu in a tweet on Aug. 15. “They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds.” The prime minister, who has now staked his reputation on his inseparable bond with Trump, buckled under the pressure and banned the legislators from visiting. Israel is now claiming that Trump’s outburst had nothing to do with its change of heart, but all other variables in the equation were known and constant. Netanyahu’s flip-flop, to paraphrase a Hebrew dictum, may have been justified, but certainly was not smart.

That’s because the Tlaib-Omar media circus would have delivered no surprises. They would have met an array of Netanyahu’s nemeses, dumped bile on Israel, and returned home. Israel has endured worse. And the news cycle would soon have relegated the event to archival oblivion. But the fallout from this episode leaves Israel’s reputation badly bruised at a time when the country’s relations with Washington are a subject of intense partisan rancor.

Trump’s smothering embrace of Israel has already energized those clamoring to downgrade the country’s partnership with the United States. Moves such as the relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem have been greeted with predictable outrage from the usual suspects, but, luckily for Israel, with largely muted or nuanced disapproval from most of the president’s congressional critics. (Many leading Democratic contenders to replace Trump in 2020 have confirmed that they would not move the embassy back to Tel Aviv.)

What makes this most recent incident different, however, is the groundswell of criticism being directed at Israel from many of its greatest champions. “We disagree with Reps. Omar and Tlaib’s support for the anti-Israel and anti-peace BDS movement,” AIPAC responded, but “[w]e also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand.” The heads of the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League chimed in similarly. Reproach for the travel ban among politicians wasn’t confined to the Democratic Party, either: Democrats Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Jerry Nadler, both prominent advocates of strong U.S.-Israel cooperation, were joined in rebuking Israel’s action by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and former independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, who deemed the move a “serious mistake.”

Trump may have gotten what he wanted, but the decision is a net loss for Israel. Tlaib and Omar, and their views, have been rewarded with valuable publicity. And rifts between Jerusalem and Washington have been exacerbated amid charges that the Netanyahu government has insulted the honor of the U.S. Congress—precisely the outcome that Israel’s ambassador sought to avert.

The damage assessment for Israel is multifaceted. Close ties with the United States have generated essential diplomatic, security, and economic dividends for the small country. Uncle Sam’s broad shoulders have enabled Israel to stand firm against bullies in its hostile neighborhood. If the United States were to start telling Israel “we’re really not that into you anymore,” that dynamic could shift and cause dangerous repercussions for Israel’s standing and success in the world.

The Democratic caucus is up in arms. A group of House members is exploring avenues—including a statement of no confidence—to communicate a “deep lack of confidence and trust” in Ambassador Dermer. “It is completely unclear that he represents his government,” a senior congressional source told McClatchy, “given he has made promises that he has not kept and wasn’t clear if he ever had any chance of keeping.” Censuring Israel’s top envoy in the United States would constitute a powerful message and raise concerns about the potential for escalation that could close the United States’ doors to Israeli representatives in the future. 

Other ideas to bring Israel to heel are also floating around. Before Israel’s reversal, presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, told a town hall meeting that “the United States government gives a whole lot of money to Israel, and I think we can leverage that money to end some of the racism that we have recently seen in Israel.” Once Tlaib and Omar were grounded, a statement from Pressley called on the United States to “reevaluate our relationships with any country who seeks to ban Americans,” and Ocasio-Cortez hinted at instigating a congressional boycott on visits to Israel. 

Israel is now—thanks to Trump’s pugnacious intervention in its decision-making process—in the hot seat with an expanded circle of elected U.S. officials who may be inclined to put Netanyahu on notice.

The prime minister faces an unenviable predicament. After betting his whole hand on Trump, Netanyahu finds himself unable now to wiggle free of the President’s suffocating bearhug. When Trump dared Netanyahu, the beneficiary of presidential largess, to cross him—even at the cost of harm to Israel’s long-term welfare—in a showdown over Tlaib and Omar, Netanyahu folded swiftly. It is likely a sign of things to come. With the 2020 campaign heating up, Trump will almost certainly demand that Netanyahu continue to repay his debt of loyalty in currency that will make Israel a divisive political issue and jeopardize fragile bipartisan support for the Jewish state.

The vicissitudes of political life will soon determine what happens next, as both Israelis and the Americans prepare to go to the ballot box. If both Netanyahu (on September 17) and Trump (just over a year later) win reelection, current trends will likely endure surely for as long as they remain in office. But nothing is forever. 

If Netanyahu loses or is driven from power for other reasons, his successor will be able ostensibly to cultivate a healthier and less sycophantic rapport with the White House. What Israelis should fear most is the combination of a Netanyahu victory and a Trump defeat—at the polls or otherwise—at which point deteriorating U.S.-Israeli relations might introduce them to the thorny downside of the poisonous symbiosis between Netanyahu and Trump. 

Shalom Lipner is a nonresident senior fellow of the Middle East program at the Atlantic Council. From 1990 to 2016, he served seven consecutive Israeli premiers at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. Twitter: @ShalomLipner

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