Spurning lawmakers, Netanyahu loses the Democrats he never thought he had
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AnalysisA final nail in the coffin of bipartisan support?

Spurning lawmakers, Netanyahu loses the Democrats he never thought he had

Despite PM’s view of liberals as lost cause, Israel still enjoys overwhelming bipartisan backing on Capitol Hill. By indulging Trump and banning Omar and Tlaib, that may now change

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands as he leaves the House chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 3, 2015, after addressing a joint meeting of Congress in a speech opposing the imminent Iran nuclear deal . (AP/Andrew Harnik)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands as he leaves the House chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 3, 2015, after addressing a joint meeting of Congress in a speech opposing the imminent Iran nuclear deal . (AP/Andrew Harnik)

The Israeli government’s decision to bar two Democratic members of Congress from entering the country may one day be considered one of the final nails in the coffin of bipartisan support for Israel.

The damage it is liable to wreak in relations between the Jewish state and the Democratic Party is comparable in scope only to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s March 2015 speech in Congress, during which he attacked the nuclear agreement with Iran championed by then-president Barack Obama.

The imperative to try to derail a deal many in Israel saw as an existential threat is obvious. Keeping freshman lawmakers Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota from touring the West Bank, even if they were expected to say very nasty things about Israel during their trip, is arguably less important.

For Netanyahu, the benefit of barring the pair is obvious: indulge US President Donald Trump and burnish his right-wing bona fides ahead of elections. But by putting his relationship with Trump above his ties with Congress, he may be mortgaging Israel’s future for a short-term boost. And while Democrats remain broadly supportive of Israel, by acting like they are a lost cause, the prime minister may unwittingly end up making that a reality.

Analysts have given several reasons for Netanyahu’s decision to nix the planned visit of the two, chief among them Trump’s hatred for Tlaib and Omar.

Trump has long picked on the pair — the first Muslim congresswomen — and even though he claimed he didn’t push Israel on the decision, he has made clear he did not think Netanyahu should let them in.

“I think it would be a terrible thing for Israel to let these two people who speak so badly about Israel come in,” he told reporters Thursday. “They’ve said some of the worst things I’ve ever heard said about Israel. So how can Israel say welcome?”

Reps. Rashida Tlaib, left, and Ilhan Omar at a rally with Democrats in the Capitol, March 13, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images, via JTA)

As opposed to his policy vis-a-vis Obama, Netanyahu has made a strategic decision never to publicly contradict or disagree with Trump. Israel has received a lot in return, including the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem, the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and the termination of the loathed nuclear deal. As the White House prepares to unveil its blueprint for a peace deal with the Palestinians, Netanyahu is being especially careful not to antagonize the president.

And there is a domestic benefit. By standing up to supporters of the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement, Netanyahu is able to bolster his image among right-wingers as a fearless defender of Israel ahead of next month’s election.

Steny Hoyer speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 22, 2019,(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The outcry from liberal Jewish groups and Democratic lawmakers could not have come as a surprise to Netanyahu.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who was in Israel this week, said he urged Netanyahu personally not to ban the controversial Congresswomen.

Criticism was not isolated to pro-forma statements or opposition from the usual suspects such as Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. Rather the move was panned across the board, and across the aisle in some cases, including by pro-Israel stalwarts such as Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer, who issued strongly worded missives to protest the decision.

 

And it’s not only Democrats who think banning Tlaib and Omar isn’t a bright idea. Florida Senator Marco Rubio — a staunch friend of Israel and former and likely future Republican president candidate — also deemed it “a mistake.”

In the short-term, Netanyahu’s thinking makes some sense. Trump can be expected to be grateful for Israel’s decision to face down two of his worst enemies. Maybe he will reward Netanyahu with another pre-election present; the premier reportedly hopes the White House will publicly back Israel’s right to extend sovereignty to settlements in the West Bank before Israelis head to the polls.

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman (R) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an event in Jerusalem marking the anniversary of the transfer of the US embassy to the city, May 14, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Unsurprisingly, the administration swiftly endorsed the Israeli ban. “The United States supports and respects the decision of the Government of Israel to deny entry to the Tlaib/Omar Delegation,” US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said in a statement Thursday.

But the current administration is not the United States; it’s not even the American government. And the good will of members of Congress is arguably more important for Israel than that of the occupant of the Oval Office, certainly in the medium- and long-term.

“Congress is the mainstay of Israel’s support among the American people. Israel must do everything in its power to preserve that resource, even in the face of a small but virulent minority,” Michael Oren, a former Israeli envoy to Washington, told The Times of Israel on Thursday, in a vague but rare criticism of the prime minister.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy with a delegation of members of the United States House of Representatives in Jerusalem, August 11, 2019 (courtesy Hadari Photography)

Indeed, administrations come and go every four or eight years, but members of  congress often stay in positions of power for decades. It’s Congress, not the White House, that has the power to allocate funding for crucial military aid.

But the prime minister, who grew up and studied in the US, has long given up on Democrats and other liberals. Netanyahu considers left-wing Americans — including non-Orthodox American Jews — a lost cause, former and current associates acknowledge in private conversations. Rather, Netanyahu sees Evangelicals and other conservatives as his natural allies.

Even if Netanyahu gave up on Democrats, though, they haven’t given up on the country under his stewardship.

Support for the Jewish state remains a bipartisan consensus in the US. That fact was demonstrated last month when 398 Congressmen voted in favor of an anti-BDS resolution (only 17 opposed the motion, Tlaib and Omar among them; five abstained). It was underlined again this month, when unprecedentedly large delegations of lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, visited Israel.

But watershed events like this, in which Israel bars duly elected Democratic congressmen seemingly at the behest of a Republican president, threaten to erode that consensus. As Oren put it, Netanyahu’s decision may not make American legislators hate Israel, but it makes it harder for many of them to love Israel.

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