There is no doubt the decision by Prime Minister Netanyahu to bar Democratic Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib from entering Israel is brazen. And on the surface, it can be quickly explained away as the mere political machinations of an Israeli Premier desperate to maintain and mobilize the support of his base, cynically sacrificing 70 years of unwavering, bipartisan American support at the altar of an American President who is himself gearing up for what promises to be a difficult reelection campaign. Cynical politicians for an increasingly cynical moment in world history.
The problem with this narrative isn’t that it’s incorrect — it is. It’s that as every player in the public circus (media/public/politicians) enters the predictable cycle of cheap partisan point scoring and simplistic explanations so critical to today’s Twitter and news spheres, the larger inflection point in Israel-US relations it represents is going unnoticed and undiscussed. That inflection point is much deeper than worries about the loss of bipartisan support for Israel. It’s an inflection point of evolving points of reference, changing mindsets, and altered worldviews.
An oft-repeated criticism of Netanyahu’s decision is that it’s is the final nail in the coffin in turning Israel into a partisan issue. But while this line makes for good punditry fodder, it doesn’t make any sense. It’s laughable to think that a single President and Prime Minister could reverse 100+ years of grassroots American support for Zionism, and 70+ years of bipartisan support for the State of Israel, in just 2.5 years.
What’s really going on here is much more profound. The two leaders are responding to already shifting attitudes in both the American and Israeli polity that are increasingly putting them at odds with one another.
In Israel, the horrors of the Second Intifada, the effectiveness of the security barrier, the ongoing lack of strong and clear world condemnation of the BDS movement, the results of the Gaza disengagement, and other political convulsions across the Arab world, have all combined to create a profound sense that vulnerability in the name of peacemaking is a suicide mission. That in turn means there will be no Israeli disengagement from Judea and Samaria — regardless of what that ultimately means for Israel, the die is cast. Those who think otherwise are either happy to maintain the stability of the status quo, or are simply deluding themselves.
At the same time, political trends amongst American youth are trending decidedly anti-Israel, and being reinforced at the institutional level. Even high-school curriculums are beginning to indoctrinate children with the Palestinian narrative, condemning Jewish Israel with scorn and pronouncing a sentence of righteous annihilation. If this isn’t reversed, America’s polity as a whole will view Israel increasingly less favorably. A decrease in aid and support given to Israel will be forthcoming as these new generations being to wield power, and no one can guess how far it will erode over any given timeframe.
This meeting of renewed Israeli existential crisis with shifting American political demographics made an inflection point in American Israeli relations inevitable. Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Trump didn’t create them. Their blatantly self-serving act of political expediency didn’t create a new reality — it merely shone daylight on what was already happening.
Nations contract alliances based on hard power. This is a reality the West — prosperous, free, secure, and secure in its freedom and prosperity — prefers to deny. But Israel, constantly under existential threat of annihilation, cannot afford that luxury. Israel will always prioritize neutralizing a hard threat with hard power.
So, yes, the idea that Israel would bar member of Congress from entering the country — even if they were supporters of BDS — would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. But from the Israeli perspective the critical point is that it never would have been necessary a few years ago, either. And that reality makes all the difference. BDS is now so much of an existential threat that it was sent to Israel’s shores by the US Congress itself. To Israeli’s, that is irrefutable proof that something has profoundly shifted in America.
It is also irrefutable proof that BDS is a hard power threat that warrants a hard power response.
There is no doubt that Netanyahu’s decision accelerated the process of cracks opening up in the American Israeli relationship. And there’s also no doubt that this acceleration is bringing the situation to the forefront faster than either side is ready for. Personally, I would have let the Congresswomen enter out of respect for Israel’s greatest historical ally, a desire to minimize and slow the deterioration of the alliance instead of pouring gasoline onto it, and the desire to deny BDS a global PR coup.
But at the same time, those claiming that the real story here is Netanyahu barring two US Congresswomen from entering Israel, in a cynical gambit to save his own skin, at the expense of the US-Israeli alliance, should take a moment to ask themselves what conditions and circumstances would already have had to be in place for him to think that strategy will work before passing judgement.