Analysis |

Ilhan Omar and the anti-Israel American Left Would Be Next to Nothing Without Benjamin Netanyahu

His ethnocentric nationalism, rejection of Obama, embrace of Trump and disdain for U.S. Jews accelerates the erosion of Democratic support for Israel

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Congresswoman Ilhan Omar on the East Steps of the U.S. Capitol, Washington D.C., March 8, 2019.
Congresswoman Ilhan Omar on the East Steps of the U.S. Capitol, Washington D.C., March 8, 2019.Credit: AFP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

The Israeli media has been too busy covering the election campaign and criminal indictments against Benjamin Netanyahu to pay much attention to the Ilhan Omar controversy gripping U.S. politics. Even though it pertains to American Jews, anti-Semitism and the strategically critical issue of Israel’s standing in the United States, Israelis, as Allison Kaplan Sommer points out, have studiously ignored the D.C. kerfuffle.

But their lack of interest doesn’t simply stem from Israelis being otherwise engaged with their own meshugas and isn’t just a reflection of their traditional disregard for anything other than the hard core and bottom line of U.S.-Israeli relations.

The narrative pushed by right-wingers about the emergence of a radical, Muslim-driven, anti-Israeli left that exposes a Democratic Party drifting away from its traditional support for the Jewish state may seem like breaking news in America but sounds awfully familiar in Israel. It is the version of reality that Netanyahu has been peddling for the past four years.

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The prime minister has traditionally and naturally felt more affinity for Republicans than for Democrats. Before Donald Trump, the only two U.S. presidents he served alongside were Democrats — Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — and both gave him a hard time. Given that Netanyahu invariably translates disagreements into hostility, he developed a fear of, and a grudge against, the political camp that sent the two Democrats to the White House.

In 2015, when Democrats railed against Netanyahu’s speech to Congress and then failed to support him in the fight of his life against the Iran nuclear deal, they defied his expectations and confounded his projections. They gave valuable ammunition to his real and perceived enemies in the Knesset and media. In his jaundiced eyes, Democrats were now actively collaborating with the galaxy-wide, Arab-loving pinko-press plot to hound him out of office. They became, in intent if not in practice, his mortal enemies.

American Jews, in this context, were cast as their aiders and abettors. They voted unabashedly for Obama in 2012, well after he had been earmarked by the right as an Israel-hater and Muslim sympathizer. They voted even more emphatically for Hillary Clinton, even though she was depicted by Netanyahu’s allies as worse for Israel than the original Obama. And they voted unequivocally for Democrats in 2018, despite Netanyahu’s effusive praise of Trump as the greatest patron of Jews since Persian King Cyrus.

Coupled with their embrace of liberal values that Netanyahu abhors, American Jews morphed in Netanyahu’s mind from stalwart allies to suspect saboteurs. Their protests against his escalating nationalism and antidemocratic tendencies were received as proof of their hostile intent. When a Hillary Clinton presidency seemed imminent, Netanyahu was prepared to swallow his pride to win back American Jews, but his heart was never in it.

Trump’s election was nothing less than deliverance for Netanyahu, whether it was a result of divine or Russian intervention. Contrary to his critics’ doom and gloom warnings about the consequences of his open challenge to Obama, Netanyahu’s stars aligned behind him in perfect formation. A brash and impressionable president, a Republican Party beholden to Christian evangelicals and Sheldon Adelson in the president’s ear — what more could Netanyahu ask for?

Fired up by his triumph, Netanyahu abandoned his intention of mending fences with the Democratic Party and/or its constituent American Jewry. He aligned himself completely and wholeheartedly with Trump and the evangelicals, and vice versa. Thus, it was only a matter of time before Trump would say out loud what Netanyahu and his aides had been whispering about them — and shouting about their counterparts on the Israeli left — for quite some time: The Democrats are now, as Israelis learned from their prime minister long before, “anti-Israel” and “anti-Jewish.”

Given his own courtship of white supremacists and manifestations of anti-Semitism — including his December 2015 statements to the Republican Jewish Coalition about the Jewish wish to control presidential candidates with their money, which was a more explicit rendering of Omar’s “Benjamins” remark — Trump’s attack on the Democrats was outrageous in its sheer hypocrisy and total lack of self-awareness. But it not only conformed to Netanyahu’s view of the present, it was also an accurate reflection of what Netanyahu’s critics have been saying all along about the future.

Netanyahu, of course, absolves himself of any responsibility for the erosion of bipartisan U.S. support for Israel, blaming it instead on the renowned treachery of the left, the insidious influence of Muslim propaganda and the unending incitement of morally corrupt media. In the real world, the situation is more complex. While Netanyahu certainly isn’t the instigator of the Democratic left’s radicalization, he is the catalyst for placing Israel on its main stage. Netanyahu didn’t light the fire, but he certainly fanned the flames.

The new wave of young radicals in the Democratic Party, which includes Omar and her fellow female Muslim legislator Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, as well as Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez from New York, owe their election first and foremost to the ongoing political polarization in the United States and to the Democratic Party’s natural reaction to the excess and extremism of the Trump presidency. Just as widespread resentment of Obama sparked the rise of the Tea Party in 2010, outrage and animosity toward Trump spurred the emergence of a new and militant American left.

Netanyahu isn’t responsible for the centrality of Israel in the mindset of the radical left either. The view of Israel as a colonialist outpost that subjugates millions of indigenous Palestinians is ingrained in far left thinking: At one end it veers into anti-Semitism, and at the other it constitutes no more than principled objection to the ongoing occupation.

When Israel is ruled by a coalition of the theocratic and the ethnocentric, as it has been throughout most of recent history, the argument against Israel in the far left becomes a slam dunk that requires no reasoning or elaboration.

Netanyahu’s singular and personal contribution was to fan the anti-Israel fire in the far left, to render their message more appealing to moderates, especially the young, and to weaken the resolve and ability of the Democratic leadership to stand up to their rebellious left flank. By pointedly patronizing Obama and enthusiastically embracing Trump, by hounding leftist radicals who support BDS and hugging Israeli Kahanists — the closest Jewish thing to white supremacists — Netanyahu made clear to the American left that Israel and their enemies within, including Trump and the GOP, are one and the same.

In the eyes of the far left, the outburst of universal rage against Omar’s allegedly anti-Semitic remarks — which her apologies did little to mitigate — only seemed to confirm her portrayal of the inordinate influence of the pro-Israel lobby. The uniformity of the condemnations emanating from a Democratic leadership desperate to distance itself from its new Muslim recruit with the cynical faux-outrage from Trump and the GOP cast the Democrats as being in cahoots with their despised rivals.

The groundswell of protest soon encompassed three prominent Democratic senators with presidential aspirations — Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris — forcing Nancy Pelosi and the leadership of the Democratic majority in the House to scotch plans for an Omar-triggered resolution against anti-Semitism to a wider condemnation of hate, including incitement against Muslims.

This gave Trump the opening he was waiting for to score political points by tarring the entire Democratic Party as “anti-Jewish” and “anti-Israel,” a ludicrous generalization that nonetheless emboldened Omar and her supporters and embarrassed Pelosi and her fellow leaders. Which, in the eternal dialectics of politics, suits Trump and the GOP just fine: They couldn’t care less about the fate of once-sacrosanct bipartisan support for Israel, but are delighted by the opportunity to portray their rivals as extremist radicals with an anti-Israeli, ergo anti-American, agenda.

But whatever the merit of arguing that the Omar controversy implicates Netanyahu, in his eyes it only vindicates him. Moreover, the confluence between Omar’s onslaughts against Israel with her anti-Semitic statements marks a triumph for Netanyahu’s strategy of conflating the two until they’re one and the same.

When he is no longer preoccupied with ensuring his own survival, Netanyahu will make sure to remind Israelis, “I told you so.” Anyone asserting that he personally contributed to the alienation of Democrats will be accused of collaborating with them. Anyone claiming that his own ultra-right policies and 52 years of occupation lend Omar’s message the potency it might otherwise lack will be tarred as a supporter of her far-left agenda and, if Jewish, as a self-hating Jew to boot.

The entire Omar brouhaha would have developed in a radically different direction if Israel was still perceived in America as a liberal democracy and if its leader was seen as doing his level best to secure peace, despite the objective obstacles. The anti-Israel faction would have gained little traction and the Democratic Party could have united in rejecting Omar's hostile stand. But an Israel increasingly seen as following Netanyahu into the darkness of racism and intolerance, an Israel that emulates Netanyahu’s uncritical embrace of Trump and his odious views, is an Israel that even mainstream Democrats will soon find hard to support.

Netanyahu’s preconceived and hostile view of American liberals and their American Jewish supporters turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, which is now playing out before our very eyes. Rather than dismaying Netanyahu, it will embolden him further, which will only serve to widen the gap even more. 

As the concept of bipartisan support for Israel goes up in flames, the Israeli prime minister will be standing watch, fiddling with glee, oblivious to the wreckage he will leave behind, which by then — if Netanyahu wins the election — could very well be unsalvageable.

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