If one assesses them by the personal intimacy between their leaders and the unanimity of outlook of their administrations, relations between Israel and the United States have never been better, even more so in the wake of Jerusalem’s decision to refuse entry to Muslim legislators Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have never seemed more like a match made in heaven (or hell, depending on your point of view). They are united in their right-wing nationalist ideology and in their contempt for its detractors, joined at the hip in their hostile attitudes to Iran and the Palestinians and, perhaps most importantly, increasingly dependent on each other for their political futures. What started as a beautiful friendship has evolved into a mutualistic symbiosis; they now need each other to survive.
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If one views them through a wider prism, however, one that includes Israel’s image and standing in Congress, public opinion, academia, media and the Jewish community, the ties between the two countries have hit rock bottom in recent days, all the more after Israel’s refusal to allow Tlaib and Omar’s visit. The negative reactions to the entry ban were swift, fierce and widespread, rendering it a potential turning point in the history of ties between the two countries. Their relationship is still “special,” but increasingly perverse; their values are still shared, but increasingly shameful.
Even if one accepts the Israeli claim that the refusal to allow Tlaib and Omar’s visit stemmed from real concern that their tour would turn into an anti-Israeli propaganda campaign – and wasn’t the result of abject capitulation to a Trump diktat – the damage they might have caused in statements and press conferences in the West Bank is exponentially smaller than the havoc wreaked by the decision to deny them entry.
Netanyahu, who likes to cast himself as a “strong leader,” not only shook like a leaf at the thought of upsetting Trump, but was outsmarted and outplayed by two hostile but novice members of Congress, who inflicted more damage on Israel’s image than they could have ever dreamed of. They set the trap, and he rushed headlong into it.
For the first time in decades, possibly since the first intifada in the late 1980s, Israel lost a campaign for the hearts and minds of most Americans. In the battle over narratives, Jerusalem was thumped. Its total identification with Trump and his policies stains Israel with the U.S. president’s prejudices and aggressive, race-baiting rhetoric. Netanyahu’s efforts to curry favor with his benefactor have caused lasting and possibly irreversible harm.
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In the few days since Netanyahu announced his flip-flop from a previous decision to allow Omar and Tlaib’s visit, Israel has been subjected to relentless criticism that has strayed far and wide from the usual suspects in the deep American left. The Israeli ban was lambasted not only by Democrats and their leaders, but also by staunch supporters such as Joe Lieberman and even Republicans like Senator Marco Rubio; it was pilloried by left-wing pundits, but also by colleagues far to their right; it was critiqued not only by politicians on the fringe but even by presidential candidates such as Elizabeth Warren, who hitherto steered clear for fear of a pro-Israel backlash. No more.
The extraordinary condemnation issued by AIPAC, as well as other mainstream establishment Jewish groups, opened the floodgates. The protest lodged by the pro-Israeli lobby, which usually backs the Israeli government come what may and very rarely voices any dissent in public, encouraged otherwise reticent politicians to criticize Israel openly, some for the first time ever. In the center and moderate right, a taboo on censuring Israel was shaken; on the left, self-imposed limits on the vehemence of objections to Israeli policy were lifted, virtually overnight.
Dana Nessel, attorney general of Tlaib’s Michigan, who became a hero for women and the LGBTQ community in the 2016 elections after becoming the first openly gay woman to be elected to such a post, captured the essence of this new and harsh tone by claiming, in an official statement, that Netanyahu’s government had “adopted the bigoted political tactics of Donald Trump.”
Diehard fans of Trump and Netanyahu in politics and the media tried to rebuff the attacks, echoing official talking points on the sinister designs of the evil congresswomen and on the right and duty of any government to combat anyone, including American legislators, who advocate boycotting it. This is most likely the view of most Israelis as well. In U.S. public opinion, however, Israel was cast as repressive, arguably racist and Trumpian to its core. The analogies to apartheid-era South Africa, which also garnered wide condemnation after it started to ban visits by foreign anti-apartheid activists, were never more pertinent or harder to refute.
Many Israelis, and not only Netanyahu disciples, pounced on Tlaib’s decision not to visit her grandmother near Ramallah, despite the approval given by Israel’s Interior Minister Arye Dery “on humanitarian grounds.”
Dery added insult to injury by tweeting condescendingly that Tlaib’s “hatred for Israel is stronger than her love for her grandmother.” He obviously missed the interim part in which Israeli officials unilaterally leaked the letter, in which Tlaib originally accepted the Israeli demand not to engage in boycott advocacy, in order to humiliate her publicly and to celebrate her “capitulation” to Israel’s courageous and resolute government.
This ostensible escape hatch from Israel’s predicament, however, is nothing more than a fleeting mirage. The U.S. media, along with top Democrats, placed the plight of Tlaib’s grandmother as yet another manifestation of Israeli callousness and obtuseness. Just as the Knesset law that forbids entry of boycott advocates, which Israel cites in its defense, was deemed illegitimate in and of itself, the restrictions imposed on Tlaib were seen as an unworthy attempt to silence a duly elected U.S. representative, even if she had momentarily been coerced to accept them.
The irony is that Trump’s warning that any Israeli approval of Tlaib and Omar’s visit would be “a sign of great weakness” was completely borne out, albeit in a diametrically opposite way. Netanyahu’s surrender to Trump at the expense of Israel’s vital interests painted a portrait of an insular country lacking in self-confidence and ruled by cowardly leader. What the Israeli and American right viewed as Netanyahu’s just and forthright stance was cast in the U.S. as feckless enlistment in Trump’s divisive and hateful campaign against minorities.
Trump, who continued to praise Netanyahu’s ban on Friday night and emulated Dery’s derision by congratulating Tlaib’s grandmother for avoiding her granddaughter’s visit, has good reason to be pleased with his ally/vassal in Jerusalem. He could have hardly asked for more. Trump seeks to taint the entire Democratic Party with the radical politics practiced by Tlaib, Omar and their New York colleague Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He wants to drive a wedge between Israel and Democrats, in a delusional hope of prying loose some of the party’s Jewish voters and donors. Netanyahu’s ban gives Trump’s efforts to cast the irreverent Democratic lawmakers outside the pale an official Israeli stamp of approval, positioning it as a useful prop in his reelection campaign, at the expense of the little that’s left of traditional bipartisan support for the Jewish state.
No less injuriously, Israel is now seen as a willing aider and abettor of Trump’s obnoxious race baiting. It is siding with a president widely perceived as prejudiced against minorities in general, and the darker-skinned among them in particular. It is a precarious arena, one in which strong emotions and moral absolutes reign. If Israel doesn’t shirk the stigma, it could very well turn into a cause célèbre and punching bag for civil rights activists, who have hitherto taken scant interest in the Middle East. When the Civil Rights Movement turned its attention to apartheid South Africa in the late 1960s, it was a harbinger of a seismic shift in public opinion which, less than twenty years later, compelled a reluctant Ronald Reagan to join the international community and impose a total boycott of the apartheid regime.
The Omer-Tlaib storm, of course, is bound to dissipate soon, but the damage it caused will be long lasting. Trump’s praising tweets and Netanyahu’s self-righteous excuses may suffice to placate their electorates, but they won’t blunt the harsh blow to Israel’s image, which, given Washington’s critical importance to its well-being, is nothing less than a strategic disaster. Netanyahu can count his lucky stars that in the short month left before the September 17 election, Israelis will be blissfully oblivious of the deep morass into which the prime minister has driven them. It will take some time before they digest the enormity of his blunder.