How Trump Put Netanyahu in an Untenable Position

August 20, 2019

3 min read

It was understandable but unfortunate that the Israeli government on Thursday banned a visit by two of its most hostile congressional critics, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). On Friday, the reasons it wasn’t a good idea became even more apparent.

The decision to block Omar and Tlaib was understandable because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cannot afford to rile an emotional and unpredictable U.S. president. Last month the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, said his country would allow a visit by the duo, who in 2018 were the first Muslim women elected to Congress and are ardent supporters of the boycott, divest and sanctions movement (BDS) against Israel. But after President Trump on Thursday morning criticized the Israeli decision, saying it showed “great weakness,” Netanyahu deferred to Trump and cancelled the visit.

After a torrent of criticism from across the political spectrum, he climbed halfway down by granting Tlaib permission on humanitarian grounds to visit her grandmother. Tlaib immediately rejected this offer, denouncing Israel’s stipulation that she not “advance boycotts against Israel during her visit.”

The decision to block them was unfortunate because the reversal harmed Israel. Yes, of course, the government has the sovereign right to let in or exclude whomever it wishes. But, as is often the case, an emotionally-satisfying step turns out not to be the savvy or strategic one. Here are five reasons why:

For starters, the possibility exists that the congresswomen would have learned something during their travels to diminish their hostility to Israel. It has happened before. Jesse Helms, the longtime Republican senator from North Carolina, who died in 2008, was renowned for his hostility to Israel, for example calling in 1982 for a “shut down” of U.S.-Israel relations. But he was strongly affected by a 1985 trip to the Holy Land and became Israel’s staunch supporter.

In a more recent case, former Islamist Maajid Nawaz recalled on Twitter Thursday that a “trip to Israel & engagement with Israeli humans changed me profoundly.”

Second, excluding Omar and Tlaib hands them a shiny new grudge to deploy against the Jewish state: its intolerance of criticism. Now in addition to alleging Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, the congresswomen can publicize their own personal maltreatment by Netanyahu. Permitting Tlaib to visit her grandmother will not change that fact.

Third, mere criticism is not an acceptable reason for retribution; by allowing critics to visit, Israel enhances its reputation as an advanced, strong and modern country that welcomes full freedom of speech. Barring critics undermines that perception.

Fourth, permitting the duo to visit would have allowed the Israeli government to take the initiative and control the narrative. It could have lavished them with hospitality and good will, making any hostile statements appear churlish and ill-mannered.

Finally, excluding persons because of their political opinions, or deplatforming, is a mug’s game for Israel. Given that deplatforming pro-Israel speakers and critics of the BDS movement is commonplace on college campuses and elsewhere, Israel weakens the case against deplatforming when it does the same with members of Congress.

No doubt, Netanyahu weighed such arguments and concluded, not unreasonably, that staying on the good side of Donald Trump, the U.S. president with a uniquely pro-Israel record, was the more urgent priority.

The subsequent reversal-of-the-reversal then worsened matters. It made obvious that Jerusalem wanted to let them in but in “great weakness” had bowed to Trump. Tlaib’s angry rejection of the conditions placed on her visit made Israel look petty. And Trump could still turn his anger against Netanyahu for partially defying his will.

Netanyahu’s Trump dilemma is one that U.S. allies routinely experience: Either pursue your national interests as you see them, thereby annoying the American president, or you cave into him against your better judgment.

Another dramatic example of this dilemma occurred just over two weeks ago, when, under thunderous threats from Trump, Guatemala’s president, Jimmy Morales, felt compelled to sign a migration agreement with Washington against both his own and a large majority of his countrymen’s wishes.

Not for the first time nor for the last, Trump has harmed himself and his friends by taking steps that are impetuous, spontaneous and careless. If only he would learn from his mistakes.

Reprinted with author’s permission from Middle East Forum

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