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Underlining Israel’s huge mistake

2019-08-20

From left, President Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. (AP; Getty Images)

Reps. Rashida Tlaib’s and Ilhan Omar’s "rare news conference during a congressional recess” in St. Paul, Minn., Monday criticizing Israeli policies toward Palestinians in the West Bank garnered the kind of wide media attention that would have been unthinkable had the Israeli government not decided to bar them from entering Israel.

This is one manifestation of how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision, made under pressure and with applause from President Trump, represents the worst strategic move by Israel in years. Not since Netanyahu’s unwelcome speech to Congress against the Iran nuclear deal in 2015 have Democrats in Washington been so enraged with Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Anyone who has spent any time whatsoever discussing Israel with Democrats on Capitol Hill knows well the lasting mistrust that episode caused. But the fallout from last week’s episode will be worse.

Back then, nearly all supporters of Israel were stunned that an Israeli prime minister would go behind the back of an American president to give an address to Congress opposing his signature foreign policy achievement. But as galling as that maneuver was, an argument could be made as to why Netanyahu determined it was worth it. Netanyahu believed that the Iran deal was a national security threat to his country — an issue of extreme importance — that required his taking such an unprecedented step.

His actions had the effect of alienating one side of the American political aisle, and scored political points for himself back home, but his motivations could be explained by his concern for Israel’s national interests, not his personal political fortunes. That is also why American Jewish organizations and Israel’s supporters were so divided on the issue of the Iran nuclear deal and the prime minister’s speech.

Not this time.

The opposition to the Israeli government decision among Democrats has been unanimous. Israel’s strongest allies in Congress, like Sen. Chuck Schumer, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Elliot Engel, have issued scathing statements. Democratic presidential candidates have come out strongly opposing the move, some attacking Netanyahu directly. Meanwhile, unlike the Iran deal, several Republicans have criticized Israel’s decision, and the reaction within the American Jewish community has been widespread and resounding, including from organizations typically cautious of public opposition to Israeli government decisions like AIPAC, and the Jewish Federations of North America.

This time is different because barring two members of the U.S. Congress from entering Israel has no strategic value whatsoever — not to Israel, not to the U.S. There are no national interests to purportedly protect, only personal political ones. One month from Israel’s upcoming Sept. 17 election, Netanyahu chose short-term political point-scoring at the expense of undermining the U.S.-Israel alliance. Trump egged him on, knowing that Democrats would come to the defense of Omar and Tlaib, his favorite political targets, enabling him to then paint Democrats as anti-Israel.

Politicizing the U.S.-Israel relationship was the president’s goal, and the prime minister was eager to oblige. Together, they are eroding America’s traditional bipartisan support for Israel.

But it is not only Trump and Netanyahu who will gain from this sad episode. As their press conference demonstrates, Tlaib and Omar have gained a platform to bring more attention to their overheated criticism of Israel than they could have ever dreamed of. Supporters of the BDS movement are also rejoicing. BDS searches on Google have surged, and #boycottIsrael was trending on Twitter.

Let’s imagine an alternative scenario: Israel allows Omar and Tlaib to enter the country. Netanyahu offers to provide them Israel’s perspective if only they would listen. Omar and Tlaib refuse. They continue with an entirely one-sided itinerary and face criticism for doing so from Democrats and Republicans alike, demonstrating just how fringe are their views within a Congress that just voted 398-17 to oppose the BDS movement and support a two-state solution.

Israel takes all necessary arrangements to ensure their access to any location of their choosing. Omar and Tlaib criticize Israel publicly throughout the visit, and seek to bring attention to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Netanyahu hosts a press conference lamenting the fact that the members of Congress would not hear Israel’s point of view, but repeats what Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, said publicly just two weeks ago: “Out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America, we would not deny entry to any member of Congress into Israel.”

In this alternative scenario, Israel emerges essentially unscathed. Angered? Probably. Embarrassed? Maybe. But strategically weakened? No. To the contrary.

In actuality, contrary to President Trump’s tweet, the decision to ban members of Congress critical of Israeli government policy from visiting the country has served to demonstrate Israel’s weakness, not strength. The opinions of two freshmen members of Congress do not represent a strategic threat to Israel. But the damage caused by refusing their entry surely does. Netanyahu and Trump have delivered a gift to Israel’s detractors and a blow to those who seek to ensure the strength of the U.S.-Israel alliance, from which the recovery could be long and arduous.

Halperin is executive director of Israel Policy Forum, a U.S. organization which supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.