For the first time in its history, Israel has officially denied entry to Members of the US Congress. Today, Israeli officials denied that they would not allow Rep. Ilhan Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib to travel to Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
The ostensible reason Israel gave for barring the Congresswomen was their their support of the objectionable and ineffective Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement against Israel, a movement that 70% of Democratic primary voters have never heard of, a movement being kept alive to a large degree by Israeli manufactured panic, for political expediency.
It’s tempting to use the unprecedented nature of this unfortunate episode to eulogize bipartisan support for Israel, and to accuse Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of actively destroying relations with the Democratic Party.
But the truth is, this episode while shocking is hardly surprising. Netanyahu has already achieved that same end over the past ten years. This episode is just the latest manifestation.
This is not to say that it wasn’t President Trump’s nudging that made Netanyahu reverse course after saying the Congresswomen would be allowed in. President Donald Trump told Netanyahu to do it, that much is clear.
“It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit. They hate Israel and all Jewish people,” tweeted the President, and the message was received.
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
In so doing, Trump showed how irrelevant he considers Israeli sovereignty, Israel’s relations with Congress, and bipartisan support. In his mind, he gave Netanyahu, the junior partner in this asymmetrical bromance, enough gifts over the last two years. It’s time Netanyahu reciprocate. And he did, willingly and enthusiastically.
The reason Trump insisted on this is clear: Trump needs this for his domestic political agenda against Democrats in general, and his war against the “Squad” — a group consisting of four progressive members of Congress: Omar, Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley.
Netanyahu’s reasons for complying are murkier. He clearly believes there is no political price to pay, a month before an election in Israel in which he is fighting for his political life. It’s not unreasonable to think that Trump thought this would somehow help Netanyahu, too.
But what could have motivated this move on Netanyahu’s part?
It’s true that most of Omar and Tlaib’s criticism of Israel is semi-informed vitriol, a casual collection of hollow and skewed platitudes detached from political reality. Their trip may potentially have had all the ingredients of over-dramatic grandstanding. But that is not the point, nor should it be. Instead, we should be asking, just what was Netanyahu so afraid of them seeing?
Israel is a very powerful country, by almost every measure and objective criteria. Twelve Nobel Laureates; ~$40,000 Gross Domestic Product per capita, on par with Britain and Italy; full diplomatic relations with 160 countries; the Weizmann Institute of Science; a nuclear reactor in Dimona; 25% of the world’s startups in biotechnology; a Cyber powerhouse; squadrons of F-35 Stealth Fighter; advanced submarines; sophisticated missile systems. By any acceptable geo-political criteria, Israel is a regional superpower. By technological and military indices, it reigns supreme, not to mention the fact that Israel invented the peculiar concept of “Hasbara,” making the marketing of Zionism’s just cause a basic tenet of diplomacy. So barring is the new Hasbara?
So this Israel, this confident, self-assured superpower, is afraid of an Ilhan Omar visit because she said things that Netanyahu doesn’t like? We are apprehensive of Rashida Tlaib because she advocates the patently unviable and politically unfeasible “One State” solution, when half of Mr. Netanyahu’s government, including himself, are inexorably headed that way and when the US Administration constantly refrains from using the dreaded term “Two State Solution”? Israel can’t handle Omar and Tlaib? Seriously? Israel can’t stand up to their quasi-credible criticism?
All this may be valid political analysis, but it is not a sufficient explanation. Had the two Congresswomen arrived and visited “Palestine” as was on their itinerary, it very probably would have amounted to nothing more than some Instagram pictures and, perhaps, inflammatory tweets. Had they actually “provoked” some sort of crisis, as government ministers accused them of planning, it would have effectively served Netanyahu, who could have said, “Told you so. Look who we are dealing with. We welcomed them, but they were here for the fireworks.” It would have embarrassed Democrats all over Congress and the Jewish electorate, and even served Trump favorably.
Yet Netanyahu chose to turn them into political martyrs.
There is a reason for that, and it has to do with Netanyahu’s perceptions of America and where in this America he belongs, affiliates and associates himself.
Mr. Netanyahu is a 1980s Republican. That is his political and cultural makeup. He detests liberals, and profoundly dislikes liberal American Jews. He’d rather speak to Evangelicals in Houston talking about the chosen people than to B’nai Jeshurun talking Tikkun Olam. He finds a Tea-Party gathering more welcoming than speaking at UC Berkley, Sarah Palin more an intellectual challenge than Al Gore, the company of authoritarian populists more his social and political milieu than a bunch of Democrats talking human rights.
Netanyahu gave up on Democrats when Obama became President. He destroyed bipartisanship in phases: by supporting Mitt Romney in 2012 and speaking to Congress on Iran behind Obama’s back in 2015. He was afraid of what Obama symbolized, and sees progressive Democrats as a product of that new electoral coalition that constitutes a majority in America.
That is when he gave up on American Jews, 80% of whom are Reform and Conservative, most of whom vote for Democrats.
So when President Trump asked not to allow Omar and Tlaib to visit, it was easy for Netanyahu. It fell in line with the past two decades for him. He probably didn’t think twice.
Alon Pinkas is the former Consul General in New York, and has served as Chief of Staff to four Israeli Foreign Ministers.