Like most of Donald Trump’s impulse-driven, policy-by-tweet actions, strong-arming Israel to block two U.S. lawmakers from entering the country lacks logic. It strains one’s mental faculties to find anything constructive in the move. Rather, it is another act of petty vindictiveness by a leader whose lack of strategic thinking is exceeded only by his recklessness. Israel’s decision, made under Trump’s duress, will strain bipartisan support for Israel—a core tenet of the nation’s security.
And that’s why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s acquiescence is even more damning than Trump’s meddling. While congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib’s visit to Israel and the West Bank would have certainly been a PR challenge for Israel, Netanyahu knew full well that the only reasonable choice was to suck it up and let them in. (The state passed a confounding law in 2017 barring any foreigner who knowingly promotes Israel boycotts, and both Omar and Tlaib support the BDS movement against Israel.) That’s why he originally decided in July to allow their visit. “Out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America, we would not deny entry to any member of Congress into Israel,” Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, said at the time.
Then, on Thursday, Trump dropped his tweet bomb:
It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep.Tlaib to visit. They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds. Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office. They are a disgrace!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 15, 2019
It was only a matter of hours until Israel reversed itself. (Jerusalem said on Friday that it would permit Tlaib, whose Palestinian family immigrated to the U.S., to visit relatives only, but she has declined to travel on those terms.)
The move was met with condemnation from those who are usually Israel’s strongest defenders. Even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the most powerful pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington, issued a rare rebuke. Other major Jewish organizations, like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, also criticized Bibi’s capitulation. So, too, did virtually every 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders went so far as to say that Israel shouldn’t receive American aid if it won’t allow duly elected members of the U.S. Congress to visit.
The great irony is that Trump’s and Israel’s attempt to marginalize prominent BDS supporters has given them far more publicity than they could have gotten through any visit to the West Bank. If anything, this incident has given an extra boost of momentum to the efforts to delegitimize the Jewish state. It has also made Omar and Tlaib, long polarizing inside their own caucus, political martyrs. The only thing Netanyahu might have achieved is having unified Democrats in their disdain for him.
Thursday’s episode came as the Israeli premier is weeks away from his country heading to the polls. There is a long pattern of Netanyahu debasing Israeli democracy on the eve of an election to win over right-wing voters. In 2015, he warned that Israeli Arabs were “voting in droves.” In March, he vowed to annex West Bank settlements. Now, he’s explicitly making Israel a partisan cause in the United States by doing Trump’s dirty work in targeting the president’s political adversaries.
The prime minister has shown once again his willingness to sacrifice his country’s long-term interests for his own short-term electoral gain. He’s also shown the price he’s prepared to pay for Trump’s friendship. His appeasing the president’s request, after all, is a form of paying off his debt to Trump for moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
As Haaretz, Israel’s leading liberal newspaper, put it, “Like a gambler in hock over his head to loan sharks, Netanyahu’s debts to Trump keep mounting, weakening his ability to say no to the president. In many ways, Netanyahu has allowed himself to be taken hostage by the White House and to dance whenever the president feels like fiddling.” And while Israel is normally a boisterous, bickering free-expression democracy, the prime minister’s barring critical American officials makes the country appear brittle in the face of opposing outside views.
And yet, we still face at least another year of the Trump presidency—God help us if we have to endure five. The state of U.S.-Israel relations, in the long run, will depend on how much more damage this president inflicts on the alliance. Since there is no coherent, ink-on-paper national security strategy, we are left observing day-to-day, hour by hour, as Trump’s foreign policy decision-making is made on whim via tweet, and more often than not, driven by grudge-matching and short-term political point-making.
No previous president has ever intervened with any government, much less a friendly one, to prevent entry to members of Congress. It is a precedent he should take no pride in setting. As a consequence, our domestic dysfunction is hurting our international policy priorities, such as maintaining healthy, mutually beneficial relationships with allies like Israel.
The ramifications of this decision could be immeasurable. It will help to turn Israel into a pariah for liberal Americans. At some point, the vicissitudes of our politics will catch on, and Netanyahu will not like the outcome. People who truly care about Israel’s future would be wise to look at Trump and wonder, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?”