By Douglas Bloomfield
When I started to write this column a couple weeks ago it appeared Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would resist Donald Trump’s pressure to ban two Muslim members of Congress from visiting Israel, knowing it would make martyrs of them and damage Israel’s relations with the Democrats, so I began with the question “How stupid does this president think Bibi really is?” Now we know.
Netanyahu let this Islamophobic president make a fool of him just to advance Trump’s personal vendetta and ego gratification. The president has conducted a bitter, racist campaign to portray these two congresswomen, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), the first Muslim women ever elected to Congress, as the face of the Democratic party.
“They hate Israel & all Jewish people,” he repeatedly tweeted. It’s not true, but so what? He certainly doesn’t care.
Trump’s pressure on Netanyahu really has nothing to do with Israel. The Jewish state is just collateral damage. Alon Pinkas, Israel’s former consul general in New York, said Trump’s pressure on Netanyahu “showed how irrelevant he considers Israeli sovereignty.” Trump saw the visit as an opportunity for “fanning the flames of racial and ethnic division,” the Washington Post observed.
It is really about the 2020 campaign and destroying any possible obstacles to his unofficial campaign theme: Make America White Christian Again. Trump may say he loves Israel, a claim that brings in donations from wealthy Jews and votes from evangelicals. But if he meant that love, he would not be doing so much to destroy Israel’s wall-to-wall bipartisan consensus in Congress.
Trump’s 2nd Wall
Instead he is building another wall —this one between Israel and its supporters: Democrats, Jews and non-white minorities. Mexico won’t pay for this wall. Israel will.
The Congress is a lagging indicator of support for Israel among these groups. Across the country, notably among younger and progressive Jews, Israel’s stock has been falling steadily, a trend that is giving mainstream Jewish leaders sleepless nights.
Netanyahu has accelerated that decline by his blatant fealty to Trump and the GOP. Jews voted three-to-one against Trump in 2016 and all indications suggest they will do the same next year, but the Israeli leader has made it clear he has little use for Democrats.
Trump tweeted that allowing the two lawmakers into Israel would be a sign of Netanyahu’s “weakness,” but in reality just the opposite would be true. If Israel is the “vibrant and free democracy” the prime minister said that it is in refusing the visit, what is he so frightened of? Trump?
Maybe this is Trump demanding payback for moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing sovereignty over the Golan Heights and green lighting annexation of the West Bank.
By ratcheting up the use of Israel as a partisan wedge issue, Trump and Netanyahu are doing damage that will take many years and far more competent leaders in both countries to repair.
Both freshman congresswomen have been harsh critics of Israel and, like Trump, have trafficked in anti-Semitic tropes (see: 2016 Trump campaign tweets). None of what the two women have said in the Congress hasn’t been said and even more harshly by members of Knesset or the Israeli media.
Netanyahu can’t be so naïve as to think their visit would bring the state of Israel crashing down or cost him the next election. Yes, he has a tough election coming up and is in full pander mode to the extremists in Israeli politics. By elevating the importance of the congressional visit, he may appeal to his fringes but he is also furthering Trump’s partisan agenda at Israel’s expense.
Critics Of Decision
Criticism of Netanyahu’s decision was quick and bipartisan. Among the first and most vocal were some of Israel’s best friends and most powerful lawmakers: House Appropriations Committee chairwoman Nita Lowey, Judiciary Committee chairman Jerry Nadler; House Committee on Foreign Affairs chairman Eliot Engel, Middle East subcommittee on Foreign Affairs chairman Ted Deutsch, the ranking Democrat on Senate Foreign Relations, Ben Cardin, and the Democratic leader of the Senate, Chuck Schumer.
All are Israel’s shtarker, all strongly disagree with the two congresswomen’s views on Israel, all are Jewish and Netanyahu just undermined their support and leadership for Israel’s cause.
Criticism of Netanyahu’s decision also flowed in from most mainstream Jewish organizations, most surprisingly AIPAC, which is widely seen as in Netanyahu’s pocket but showed itself to be a lot smarter.
Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the majority and minority leaders of the House, respectively, urged Netanyahu, both privately and in press conferences in Jerusalem, where they led delegations of more than 70 lawmakers, not to ban their two Muslim colleagues.
Damage Control Needed!
Israel has survived visits from hostile politicians —Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) called for “shutting down” relations with Israel in 1982 — but should worry about surviving Netanyahu and Trump.
Netanyahu considers himself Israel’s greatest expert on America, yet no prime minister of Israel has done so much damage to Israel’s bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. Jerusalem Post editor Yaakov Katz reminded Netanyahu that his job is to “prevent Israel from turning into a one-party-partisan issue.” Not only did he fail to “prevent” that but he has spent years making it so, contributing mightily to Israel’s frayed relations with American Jews and weakening its position in Washington.
It was a successful week for Trump. He continued building his wall between Israel and the Democrats, got the opposition party to defend two junior colleagues they strongly disagree with on Middle East policy, and he made a fool of the Israeli prime minister who never noticed it. The other big winners were Tlaib and Omar, who saw their stature elevated in their campaign to weaken US-Israel relations, and BDS, which promotes boycott, divestment and sanctions to protest Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, got a huge recruiting boost.
Israel is the big loser. It can’t blame Donald Trump, Rashida Tlaib or Ilhan Omar. The sheqel stops with Netanyahu.