President Donald Trump knows how to push Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s buttons.
When it appeared that Israel would allow Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar to visit Israel in the coming days, despite their support for the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement against the Jewish state and their outspoken criticism of Israel, the president tweeted a warning that Israel would “show great weakness” if it went through with its declared intentions. The last thing Netanyahu wants is to appear weak on the cusp of Israel’s national elections next month as he struggles, for the second time this year, to gain enough votes to form a coalition. He figured he would have been portrayed by rivals on the right like Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked as giving in to Tlaib and Omar had he let them into the country.
Instead, he was willing to be criticized as Trump’s poodle and risk long-term damage to the vital bipartisan U.S.-Israel relationship by acquiescing to the president’s request and denying entry to the two legislators.
That move, in fact, showed great weakness on the prime minister’s part and contradicted the long-held belief of his and others that Israel, a vibrant democracy, welcomes critics to come and see its reality for themselves. As a result, Netanyahu was widely criticized by stalwart supporters of Israel like AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, a host of Jewish organizational leaders, and many mainstream Democrats in Congress who are solidly behind the Jewish state.
Feeling betrayed by the reversal, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), a longtime supporter of Israel who led an AIPAC-sponsored delegation of 40 freshmen Democratic members of Congress to Israel last week — the largest such delegation ever — called Israel’s decision “outrageous,” “unwarranted and self-destructive.” This must have pleased Trump to no end as he has been publicly describing the Democratic Party as anti-Israel, part of his campaign to make Israel a wedge issue for U.S. voters. And that would be devastating to the Jewish state and to an American-Jewish community buffeted by divisions.
Author and journalist Yossi Klein Halevi, who addressed the Democratic delegation in Israel, wrote that he “sensed among them a deep empathy for Israelis caught in an impossible dilemma” between the dangers of a Palestinian state and the dangers of no Palestinian state. He came away from the encounter “deeply reassured” that anti-Israel sentiments within the party “are growing” but remain “marginal.”
But after Israel changed its mind, barring entry to Tlaib and Omar, Klein Halevi wondered how many of those freshman Congress members would have come on the trip, knowing two colleagues were turned away by the state.
He asserted that “no prime minister has done greater damage to bipartisan support for Israel.”
New York Times columnist Tom Friedman was even more blunt, charging that any American Jew planning to vote for Trump because he is pro-Israel is “a damn fool.” That’s because, Friedman argues, “few things are more dangerous to Israel’s long-term interests than its becoming a partisan matter in America, which is Israel’s vital political, military, and economic backer in the world.”
He went on to explore the very real possibility of Netanyahu prevailing in the Sept. 17 election and forming another right-wing coalition that would allow him to avoid a courtroom battle over the three counts of corruption lodged against him. Friedman imagines large numbers of young Americans, including Jews, would be turned off not only to the prime minister, but to a state that allowed him to flaunt democratic principles.
We’re not there yet. The election is a few weeks away. But the prospect of such a scenario should be chilling to anyone who loves the Israel we cherish for its values as well as its courage and resilience.