I have never been a great fan of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. However, I have always believed two positive things about him — first, I trusted Netanyahu thought his actions were, without exception, in Israel’s best interest, and second, that Netanyahu is smart and possesses an overarching understanding of history. As a result, I have been baffled by his actions over the past three years, choosing to closely identify Israel with the Republican Party, and ever the more so, since Republicans have become the party of Trump.
Still, I was surprised and disappointed by the Prime Minister’s decision last week to deny entry of US Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. He must have known the damage caused by denying them entry would far exceed the harm inflicted upon Israel’s image because of whatever they might do while here. Netanyahu came to this decision as a result of the pressure he received from President Donald Trump.
Netanyahu also must have known that denying the Congresswomen entry after originally permitting the visit (and following Netanyahu’s granting assurances to the Congressional leadership the visit would be approved) would engender even more significant damage than stating that these Congresswomen would not be permitted to enter the country from the start. Unfortunately, the reason for the Prime Minister’s flip-flop is simple, Netanyahu is like a gambler who has put all his chips on Trump, and now has no choice be to double down, regardless of the consequences.
The ridiculous stories some are trying to peddle — that once government officials saw the Congresswomen’s proposed itinerary, it was clear they were not coming with open minds. But we have known all along that these two Congresswoman do not like Israel. Tlaib comes to her position legitimately, (after all, does anyone believe that a direct descendant of a Palestinian living in the West Bank is going to like us)? Omar is another story. The reason why she obsesses about us — and not about the West Bank of the Mississippi (as Thomas Friedman wrote) — is a serious question for another day.
However, what is clear, is that by denying the Congresswomen entry into Israel under pressure from the most hated President in recent US history (albeit by half of America), we have done long-term damage to Israel. There is little disagreement among experts that Israel’s most significant strategic advantage is its close relationship to the United States. It is also true that the pendulum in American politics always swings from one side to the other. Not since FDR and Harry Truman has one party been in power for more than 12 years.
Considering the fact that demographers agree the percent of white Americans is in a state of constant decline — and that they constitute the backbone of the Republican party — it would seem that Israel’s single most important medium-term diplomatic project should be strengthening ties with the Democratic Party, especially its minority elements. This is especially true as Democrats go through a period of deliberation between moderate and more progressive elements of the party. Yet, instead of outreach, under Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Israeli government has been doing the exact opposite.
While Netanyahu, and to a lesser extent the Likud, have always been identified with the more “right-wing” Republican party, great pains have been taken continuously to ensure Israel remains bi-partisan. However, starting in 2016, when Netanyahu went to address Congress — at the invitation of the Republicans, and in direct defiance of President Obama — the Prime Minister has thrown all caution to the wind. If Netanyahu believed that by speaking to Congress he could stop a deal regarding which he had legitimate concerns, his actions might have been justified. However, to insult the first African-American President, revered by the Democratic Party, on a mission that even Netanyahu had to know was a fool’s errand, is incomprehensible.
While, with the almost accidental election of President Trump, it would seem Netanyahu’s gamble paid off, I fear that the embrace of Trump is like the poisoned chalice — which may prove near-fatal for Israel. Yes, the United States moved its embassy to Jerusalem, and we felt good about it. True, the US recognized the Golan Heights, something we had not even asking them to do. And at least as long as Nicki Hailey served at the UN, we got to hear stirring speeches in our defense. But what next? Considering the chaos that surrounds the Trump administration, and its near inability to build international coalitions, what happens if the current round of unilateral American sanctions against Iran does not work?
By giving in to Trump’s entreaty and denying the Congresswoman entry into Israel, Netanyahu has ever more closely tied our destiny with that of the Republican Party and Donald Trump. He has forced Democrats to circle the wagons and defend the Congresswoman, when most Democratic leaders would have preferred to isolate them. Never before has so much been written about BDS as has been drafted and discussed in the US media during the last 48 hours — a wonderful contribution to our government’s fight against BDS.
Part of the reason for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s continued popularity, despite all of the corruption allegations he faces, is the belief by many Israelis that his superb English oratory skills and his in-depth knowledge of America, make Netanyahu the singularly best person to navigate American-Israeli relations. It will indeed be ironic if when the history of the Netanyahu era is written, it is concluded that his greatest mistake was turning Israel into a partisan political issue in the United States. That might well be his legacy — one we can ill afford.