Aaron David Miller , Opinion contributor Published 12:33 p.m. ET Aug. 16, 2019 | Updated 2:46 p.m. ET Aug. 16, 2019
Netanyahu barred Reps. Omar and Talib from entering Israel after Trump urged him. This was a mistake for Israel.
In a bit of summer time drama starring President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the government of Israel on Thursday banned two sitting members of the House of Representatives from entering the country, before offering to allow one to make a more personal visit with restrictions. The prime minister’s explanation that the two representatives — Reps. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., violated a 2017 Israeli law barring entry to those calling for and acting to boycott Israel wasn’t fooling anyone. The law provides exceptions and waivers when restricting entry might damage Israel’s foreign relations — as it most certainly has. Having sent signals as early as last month that the two representatives would be admitted, there’s little doubt the real explanation had little to do with the boycott and everything to do with Trump’s aggressive intervention to get the visit turned off. Here are the key takeaways.
Trump’s breathtaking intervention
I can tell you from personal experience working on Middle Eastern issues for both Republican and Democratic administrations, presidents have played favorites in Israeli politics before and intervened both directly and indirectly in Israeli politics. But this was much more than that. Trump pressured a longtime U.S. ally to go after his domestic political opponents to settle scores and drive an electoral agenda designed to convince voters that the two barred lawmakers are the face of the Democratic Party on Israel hostile against Jews and a Jewish state.
This wasn’t about intervening to elect Netanyahu as much as it was about a presidential vendetta and electing Trump. Hours before the government of Israel officially banned the representatives entry, Trump tweeted out that it would be a sign of weakness if Israel admitted them — effectively furthering his own political and personal vendetta against Omar and Rashid and pressuring Netanyahu to do the same.
The breathtaking arrogance and audacity of a president formally and publicly using Israel, and recruiting Netanyahu, against Democratic opponents is beyond unseemly, directly threatens the essential bipartisanship and is virtually unprecedented in the seven decades of the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
Reps. Omar and Tlaib in the Capitol on Feb. 5, 2019 in Washington. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite, AP)
No help for Netanyahu
There’s no doubt that Trump in his consistent praising and fawning over Netanyahu has helped boost the prime minister's stock in Israel. Israelis pride themselves in their leaders’ ability to manage and bond with their most important ally. And Netanyahu has certainly received enormous benefits from Trump — first sitting president to pray at Western Wall; first to declare Jerusalem capital of Israel; open a U.S. Embassy there and recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. And Trump is certainly popular in Israel. But the way events played out in the Omar/Rashid affair may well have undermined Netanyahu’s image.
Sure, Israeli prime ministers need to remain close to U.S. presidents, but their credibility at home also depends on remaining independent and at times defying U.S. pressure. That Trump all but accused Netanyahu of weakness if he didn’t bar the two lawmakers and the sequence of events made it seem that Netanyahu was following a presidential directive.
Israelis understand how dependent he’s become on Trump and far from making Netanyahu seem decisive in banning the representatives, he now appears weak — taking orders from Trump and flip-flopping on an initial decision to admit them.
This is bad for Israel
Aside from the apparent reversal of the decision to first admit and then bar the representatives (and then admit one), the substance of the decision puts Israel in a very bad light. Had the visit taken place, it might have stirred up publicity for few days; the banning now provides ample ammunition to give the affair legs and ensures it will live on. Israel will be portrayed as an intolerant, closed nation afraid of criticism with something to hide. Indeed, it’s striking that Rep. Omar in her tweeted reaction to the ban implicitly praised Israel as the only democracy in the region, but one that has failed to live up to that standard.
Invariably the fact that both lawmakers are Muslim women — the first elected to the House — will be used to attack a Jewish state biased against Muslims, not to mention the upset the decision will cause among progressive liberal Democrats already angered by Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. That major American organizations, especially American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), have criticized the decision reflects the growing rift between the Netanyahu government and many in the American Jewish community and the stressed bipartisanship that has been the bedrock of the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
Does any of this matter?
It’s very unlikely that Trump will succeed in splitting Democrats: turning them into Republican voters or making Omar and Tlaib the face of the party on Israel. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has attacked the president over his tweets and came to the defense of the two lawmakers. More to the to the point, both Omar and Tlaib are not in sync with the vast majority of mainstream Democrats and use much tougher rhetoric. Indeed, their criticism — to the extent that it employs extreme rhetoric, let alone anti-Semitic symbols — contracts the space for legitimate criticism of Israel.
Still, two disturbing trends have accelerated under the leadership of Trump and Netanyahu — the growing disaffection between many American Jews and the Netanyahu’s policies and the increasing politicization and partisanship of the Israel issue — driven by both Netanyahu and Trump that seeks to make Republicans the go-to party on Israel. Together they are eroding bipartisanship and the confluence of values and interests that have long powered the special character of the U.S.-Israeli bond. The damage to the relationship is not yet critical. But a few more years of the Trump-Netanyahu experience, and what we witnessed over the past few days, might well make it so.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,statement: “As a vibrant and free democracy, Israel is open to all its critics and criticism, with one exception: Israeli law prohibits the entry of people who call and operate to boycott Israel."
Andrew McCarthy,Fox News: "While this rhetoric is abrasive in the Trumpian style, Israel’s exclusion of Omar and Tlaib makes eminent sense. Since when must a country, particularly one that daily confronts a terrorism challenge the likes of which we have never experienced, roll out the red carpet for aliens who mean it harm and encourage its enemies?"
Bari Weiss, The New York Times: "The obvious winner is Donald Trump, of course, who tweeted after Israel announced its flip- flop that 'Representatives Omar and Tlaib are the face of the Democrat Party, and they HATE Israel!' Here, nakedly expressed, was his actual goal: Not to protect an American ally from politicians traveling in bad faith, but to yoke mainstream Democrats to their political fringe, as he has been doing, very effectively, for weeks. Joining him in the winners’ circle are Omar and Tlaib. Say Israel had allowed them, per the original plan, to visit. The upshot would have been a week of bad headlines. But Israel has gotten that tenfold anyway, and the congresswomen managed to come out looking like martyrs. The losers? Pretty much everyone else."
David Rothkopf,Haaretz: "Worse though, is the idea that Israel will now be regulating entry into its country of members of the United States Congress based on their political views toward Israel. Not only is this a dangerously slippery slope, it also marks a breach in the essential ground rules for healthy relations between any two democracies. With this decision, Netanyahu compounds past errors and redoubles Israel’s commitment to a perilous course. He is trading an alliance between two nations that has flourished since the very first days of Israel’s existence — indeed, which made that existence possible — for an alliance between Israel and just one U.S. political party."
What our readers are saying:
Netanyahu is learning the art of the flip-flop from his good pal Trump.
— Bryan Gooden
From what I have seen on social media, the most rabid opponents of these congresswomen and defenders of Israel are not Jewish. AIPAC doesn't even support this. What are these people really defending?: surely not Jewish people.
— William Worsham
All countries choose who they allow in and who they don't. Good for Israel on this one.
— Randy Weaks
Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. I fear that Israel is becoming less democratic in this sad era where totalitarianism and authoritarianism are on the rise.
— Joe Doerger
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