Bibi and the Donald, Perfect Together

How exquisitely coincidental the timing was, don’t you think?

As President Trump was issuing executive orders late last week mandating the construction of his much-hyped border wall with Mexico and barring all Syrian refugees rom entering the country, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took to Twitter– a touch the American President could surely identify with. In less than 144 characters, he saluted the President for his wisdom and resolve, saying that as a wall had worked keeping West Bank Palestinian terrorists out of Israel, so too would a wall work to keep those Mexican undesirables that the President is so concerned with out of the United States.

So what do you think the chances are that a conversation something along these lines took place between the two leaders earlier last week?

Trump: “Bibi, they don’t call me “the dealmaker” for nothing; I’ve got a great one for you. You have political problems at home, you’re being investigated by the police (again!), and can’t afford to look weak to your right wing with a new Republican administration about to begin. They’re just chomping at the bit to get you out of office, and I. too, have had a tough first week. People are screaming at me from every which direction. You’ve been waiting for me to come into office so that, once and for all, you would be rid of Obama, whom you never trusted and actively disliked.

So here’s the deal. You announce those new housing starts in East Jerusalem and the West Bank that you’ve been holding back on. They’ll definitely help you with your hard-line right-wingers like Naftali Bennett. I won’t say anything when you do, not a word of criticism. I may pull back a little on the embassy move, but not on the housing starts. What I want in return is for you to take a page out of my playbook, and send out a tweet supporting my resolve to build that wall. Say something like ‘… Great idea, Mr. President, it worked so well here in Israel, and we support you completely in your fight to secure your borders.’ This way you get what you need, I get the support that I need, and everyone wins.'”

Netanyahu: “Mr. President, I’d be honored and delighted. What a pleasure it will be to do be able to advance my agenda in the territories without the American President and Secretary of State calling me out as an obstacle to peace!”

To know Prime Minister Netanyahu is to know that he is a political survivor par excellence, having endured multiple scandals and investigations on the road to his very long tenure as Israel’s leader. Not unlike President Trump, he has mastered the art of accessing Israeli fears, and convincing sufficient numbers of them that he alone can make them more secure. It is not at all a stretch to imagine Netanyahu jumping on an offer from Trump like the one I suggested.

Here’s the thing, though. As he strengthens his political position within the governing coalition, the Prime Minister is, either unwittingly or uncaringly– I’m not sure which is worse– exacerbating the problem he created when he came to address the American Congress about the Iran deal.

When Netanyahu turned to the Republican Congress for support and in so doing snubbed the sitting Democratic President, he essentially made Israel a wedge issue in American politics. He alienated many Democrats who were incensed at his having insulted their President, but he seemed not to care at all. His concern was defeating the Iran agreement– not an unworthy goal. But in doing what he did, he made the work of organizations like AIPAC that much harder. AIPAC’s work is all about creating and nurturing a non-partisan, cross-party consensus of support for Israel in Congress. Netanyahu subverted that work. The Democrats were furious, particularly some of the African-American members of Congress. Support of Israel’s position was no longer a consensus issue.

Now is the moment to call to recall that calculated move on Netanyahu’s part, and appreciate anew the damage it did. In retrospect, it marked the beginning of the end of the historic relationship between American Jews and the Democratic Party, going back to FDR. As he allied himself so very publicly with the Conservative Republican Congress, he also portrayed Israel as a Republican cause more than a Democratic one. There was no way to read it any other way. President Obama would never say “I love you” to Israel and its policies the way John Boehner would, and Bibi chose Boehner.

Fast forward to the present. When the Prime Minister of Israel publicly and loudly proclaims support for the construction of a wall separating Mexico and the United States, he is throwing his– and, more importantly, Israel’s– support behind one of the least popular presidents (and policy suggestions) in recent history. Worse still, that same President, via his other stated policy directives (the ban on Syrian refugees, the ban on Muslim travelers from seven different countries, etc.), has positioned himself as the mortal enemy of every progressive thinker and person who even leans towards a liberal position in this country.

So here’s the result. If most liberals and progressives are horrified by Trump and his policies, and Israel’s Prime Minister is publicly and loudly supporting at least one of those policies, then Israel becomes the target of that progressive ill-will. Opponents of Trump and his policies will quickly draw a straight line from Trump to Israel. And as the Democratic Party seeks to regroup after its disastrous defeat and sees the Israeli government so squarely in the Republican camp, it will move further and further to the left to find its constituency, leaving more moderate, traditionally pro-Israel Jews out.

What are you thinking, Mr. Prime Minister? Are you thinking?

And even more directly… does the Prime Minister have any idea how badly he has jeopardized the security and good-will that Mexican Jews–enthusiastically and proudly Zionist Mexican Jews– have historically enjoyed with both the government and people of Mexico? The Mexicans, for the most understandable of reasons, despise President Trump. When Netanyahu comes out singing the praises of the proposed wall, why wouldn’t Mexicans despise him too, and transfer that bitterness to those who support him, and Israel?

If the American President and the Israeli Prime Minister really did reach an understanding of mutual support, I have to hope that Bibi got more out of it than just America not criticizing new construction in the territories. The price that he is going to pay in alienating so much of North American Jewry (much of which is already alienated over issues of religious pluralism) is, I fear, far greater than he understands– catastrophically greater further down the road. Support of Israel in the progressive community has already been decreasing precipitously. If the Democrats bail on Israel and the only alternative is Trump and his ilk…. time to make sure that passport is current.


About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.