Unlike his predecessor, Barack Obama, President Donald Trump doesn’t think more “daylight” between the United States and Israel is needed, and he has had Israel’s back on all the major issues regarding the peace process and threats like Iran.
But ironically, this is a moment when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should have not only sought to establish a little distance between his government and the White House, but also ignored the advice coming from the Twitter account of @realDonaldTrump.
Trump’s Thursday-morning tweet, in which he said “it would show great weakness” if Israel allowed Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) to enter the country, apparently helped push Netanyahu to decide to prevent the pair from carrying out their planned trip, which was originally slated to start on Sunday.
While this may play well with some Israelis and also serves Trump’s political interests, it is a terrible mistake that will only hurt Israel and help its enemies.
Trump is right when he says that Omar and Tlaib hate Israel. They’re both guilty of anti-Semitic attacks on the Jewish nation and its American supporters, in which they’ve claimed that Jews are buying congressional support and are guilty of dual loyalty to both countries. They’re supporters of a BDS movement that is drenched in anti-Semitism and seeks to eliminate the one Jewish state on the planet.
Their goal is to conduct a circus-like tour of Palestinian sites in which a gaggle of international journalists will help them smear Israel as an oppressor. The problems of the Palestinians would have been depicted as solely the fault of Israel, while the oppression, violence, corruption and intransigence of both the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip would have been ignored.
But keeping them out of the country will help the congresswomen’s cause and other Israel-haters far more than Israel.
By going back on his government’s initial promise to allow the two to visit Israel, made last month by Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer, Netanyahu is hurting his country’s image as a free and open democracy that is not afraid of scrutiny. While that is an important consideration, the real damage goes far deeper than mere bad optics.
Their denied entry will give opponents of laws that ban compliance with BDS boycotts the ability to say that Israel and its friends are seeking to bar free speech.
More importantly, by allowing Omar and Tlaib to pose as martyrs, Israel will engender sympathy for them among their fellow Democrats, aiding rather than hindering their effort to ensure that the party is further alienated from Israel.
At the bottom of this controversy is a foolish law passed by the Knesset in 2017 to ban entry into the country of foreigners who support boycotts of Israel. The point of the legislation was to hinder non-government organizations that seek to promote the false image of Israel as an “apartheid” state. But while this inconvenienced these activists, its main impact was to provide fodder for their propaganda efforts. Their activities inside Israel did little or no actual harm to the state. Yet their exclusion made the region’s only democracy seem like just another petty tyranny. The law allowed Israelis to vent their anger at opponents, but helped their foes more than it hurt them.
Law or no law, under normal circumstances, no Israeli government would think of enforcing a ban on a member of Congress, no matter how much they may be disliked or unwelcome. The reason why the unthinkable became Israeli policy is rooted in the politics of both countries.
Netanyahu may think this decision will help him rally more right-wing Israeli voters to the Likud prior to next month’s elections, where he is fighting for his political life.
The more important calculation is that it is in Trump’s interests for Netanyahu to ban Omar and Tlaib.
Much as was the case with his previous shots at the pair and the other members of the “Squad,” like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Trump wants these radicals to become the face of the Democratic Party. His attacks on them helped turned them into martyrs and the darlings of both the party’s left-wing activist base, the liberal media and late-night television comedy shows.
Though their views are out of sync with more moderate Democrats, like the 41 members of the House who just visited Israel this past week to express their solidarity, Trump’s broadsides make it harder for others in their party to censure or hold them accountable for their anti-Semitism.
Moderate Democrats are trying, albeit not always successfully, to hold the line against radicals whose animus for Israel is fueled by intersectional theories that are fashionable on the far-left and with minority communities. But Trump wants them to fail and to further the alarming chasm between many Democrats and supporters of Israel that was widened by the misguided policies of Obama. The further to the left the Democrats drift, the easier Trump thinks it will be for him to be re-elected.
Trump may be the most pro-Israel U.S. president to date, and many friends of Israel view with alarm the possibility that a Democrat with far less sympathy for the Jewish state will replace him in the Oval Office in 2021. But given the fact that good relations with the United States is a long-term priority that transcends the political calculations of both Trump and Netanyahu, it’s not in Israel’s interests to do anything that will make the break with Democrats worse.
That is exactly what Netanyahu has done by banning Omar and Tlaib.
And by announcing his decision only an hour after Trump’s tweet, Netanyahu is allowing detractors to portray him as a lap dog of an American president, which is something that will make it harder for him or a successor to say “no” to the White House the next time it becomes necessary.
Even those who rightly regard Omar and Tlaib with anger and contempt should understand that this decision is a self-inflicted wound that will do Israel far more damage in terms of its interests and its image than any short-lived visit would have done.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor of JNS.org.