1. Benjamin Netanyahu knew exactly what he was doing. After all, he tried to get Israel’s nationality law, now renamed the nation-state law, through the Knesset in late 2014. So he knew from personal experience that there might be an international outcry, Israel’s image would sustain a harsh blow, many American Jews would be mortified and Israeli Arabs and the opposition would accuse him of sowing division and hate. He knew because he’d been there, done that.
2. But Netanyahu also knew that this time around, the president of the United States wouldn’t try to stop him. Unlike Barack Obama, Donald Trump would not intervene with Netanyahu personally against the nationality law and his administration officials wouldn’t encourage U.S. media to focus on it.
It’s doubtful whether Trump has even heard about the nation-state law anyway, never mind taken the time to know it and understand it, as Obama invariably did on most issues, but it’s guaranteed that, in any case, he doesn’t really care. If Sheldon Adelson says it’s good for the Jews, Trump could very well be telling himself, it’s good enough for me.
But U.S. acquiescence to Netanyahu’s nationality law goes far beyond Trump’s usual public deference to Netanyahu and the objectively unprecedented affinity between the U.S. administration and the current Israeli government. The Israeli right wing’s nationality law is a populist ploy that stirs up acrimony and strife, which is exactly what Trump likes to smell when he wakes up in the morning.
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The nation-state law is nationalist, discriminatory, implicitly anti-Muslim, and exceedingly insulting to any Israeli who isn’t Jewish. What’s not to like, Trump must be asking himself. An administration that defied Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims by moving its embassy to Jerusalem and one that backs Israel blindly but reprimands the Palestinians incessantly certainly won’t be bothered by a little turmoil over Israel’s Jewish identity. It’s probably fake news, anyway.
3. But even if Israel and the United States had no special relationship whatsoever, the Trump administration would still approve of the nation-state law. It aligns with their Weltanschauung. The law is a clear reflection of what Trump projects to America and throughout the world. It feeds on ultra-nationalist sentiments and sidelines minorities, which is great, infuriates the media, which is fine, and enrages the liberal left, which is dandy. And it shows Netanyahu’s middle finger pointing just like Trump’s at all those hoity-toity liberal democracies that preach so-called moral values, as if they’re better than us. Textbook Trump.
4. Trump is not only a wooer of dictators from Kim to Putin to Duterte, but also an inspiration for leaders with authoritarian and nationalistic tendencies everywhere. His era marks the decline of a Western alliance based on shared values and the rise of a me-first, every-country-for-itself, mind-your-own-business approach to international affairs. This gives leaders in countries such as Poland, Hungary and now, unfortunately, Israel, freedom to stray from the established norms of modern democracy, more or less to their hearts' content. Without the U.S. leading or at least supporting, many other governments can’t be bothered either.
5. Trump has transformed the international zeitgeist, but his influence on world affairs is even more pervasive. He rivets the world and takes its attention away from everything but him. He sucks up people’s energy, leaving them feeble to think about anything else. The same circles that gave loud voice to their fury in December 2014, when the nationality law was previously on the docket, are otherwise enraged today. They are confronted and affronted by a far greater threat to their values than a law passed in distant Israel. By being so spectacularly outrageous, Trump sidelines and diminishes the transgressions of his counterparts throughout the world.
6. This is doubly true, of course, for American Jews, a majority of whom are truly aghast at Trump’s presidency. They are naturally circumscribed by the apathy of the White House and far more concerned with the outcome of the upcoming mid-term elections, anyway. In any case, the nationality law doesn’t evoke the kind of outrage that makes people demonstrate, sign petitions or phone their local legislators. Liberal and enlightened U.S. Jews have been living with Israel’s ongoing slide into intolerant nationalism for years. They’ve already been dealt a series of body blows by the Netanyahu government, most notably in its refusal to recognize them or treat them as equals. They’re used to it by now.
For many American Jews, the nationality law means more embarrassment, more pain and more anguish. They know Netanyahu doesn’t pay attention to them anyway. And they suspect they know where all this is headed, but would rather not think about it, as they slowly drift away.
7. So the setting was ideal for Netanyahu: He could count on a compliant U.S. president, an American body politic busy elsewhere and public opinion too busy freaking out over the Trump presidency in general. He knew the Israeli left would be outraged and Israeli Arab politicians, though not their constituents, would create a ruckus. That was fine by him: in fact, it was just what the hate-doctor ordered. Netanyahu covets such wedge issues that can inflame his base and put his critics and opponents on the defensive for not being “national” enough in the eyes of the majority of Jews that gets him elected.
8. The Druze, however, surprised him. They threw a monkey wrench in his works. The country’s pride and joy, the conservative, right-leaning, intensely loyal tribe with the impeccable credentials of combat soldiers and commanders for the Israeli army did not figure in his game plan. Netanyahu was warned, but took the Druze for granted.
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Netanyahu’s mistake about the degree of Druze indignation was compounded by his reaction to it. He tried to sow division among people who pride themselves on unity and mutual solidarity, and he cast doubt on the patriotism on those who have paid a proportionately heavier price on the battlefield and in the fight against terrorism than the Jewish majority itself. In Israeli terms, Netanyahu took on the toughest possible rival.
9. The Druze rebellion has already yielded Saturday night’s massive protest at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, one of the largest in recent memory. It remains to be seen, however, whether it is a flash in the pan or heralds the birth of new Israeli alliance between moderate Jews and non-Jewish minorities that would fight for Israeli democracy and liberal values.
But one should remember that any serious challenge to Israeli political orthodoxy, the right wing’s supposedly perpetual hegemony or Netanyahu’s seemingly endless stay in office will be met by a fiercer, harsher, more cynical and more divisive response than ever before. With Trump by his side, nothing’s gonna stop Netanyahu, now or in the future.