By Ben Caspit
August 16, 2019
Shortly before Israel’s 2015 elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to Washington to address a joint session of Congress, going over the heads of the president and the Democratic Party and ignoring criticism from the American and Israeli media and most major Jewish organizations in the United States. He did so for three reasons: A desire to win the elections scheduled for two weeks later, strong hostility toward President Barack Obama and a deep-seated aversion to several world powers’ nuclear deal with Iran. At the time, there were those who claimed he was inflicting severe strategic damage on Israel’s relationship with the Democratic Party. Netanyahu ignored them. He won the election, rid himself of Obama a year later and got Donald Trump instead.
On Aug. 15 this year, Netanyahu did it again, but with the opposite goal in mind. He ignored the Democratic Party, significant chunks of the GOP, the media and almost all US Jewish organizations (including AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations). However, this time he did not do so to spite an incumbent president, but rather to support him.
In his last-minute decision to ban the entry of two Democratic congressional representatives hostile to Israel, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, Netanyahu put out a Trump flag. While he has turned Israel into an empire — according to a book recently published by his acolytes — his own empire is a protectorate of Trump.
In barring the two lawmakers, a decision that has met harsh criticism in Israel and the US Jewish community, Netanyahu is defying everyone. Even his closest confidant and ally, Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer, has stated that Israel must allow them to visit. Netanyahu knows what he's doing. He is a consummate PR professional and understands as well as anyone that keeping out Omar and Tlaib makes them martyrs with massive sympathetic media coverage and causes grave damage to what little is left of American bipartisan support for Israel.
On the other hand, there is Trump. The two are hopelessly entwined. Trump expressed his “disappointment” with Netanyahu’s initial decision to allow the Omar-Tlaib visit, pressuring him to revoke it. Netanyahu was forced to choose between Israel’s national interests and the president of the United States. Both men are engaged in do-or-die election campaigns. Netanyahu’s political fate will be determined one month from now at the ballot box, but Trump has only started his reelection campaign. He is using the two progressive Democrats as a provocation to galvanize the support of his Republican and evangelical base. He needed Netanyahu to do him this favor, and Netanyahu delivered. After all that Trump has said and tweeted about Omar and Tlaib, allowing them to run “a victory lap” in Palestine would have been a punch in the nose. Instead, Netanyahu volunteered to take the punch. Just as in 2015, criticism is raining down on Netanyahu from all directions. Now, as then, he ignores it, convinced that history is on his side.
“It’s not like Netanyahu had a choice,” one of the prime minister’s associates told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. “This president has given him everything, including things he never dreamed of getting. He got [US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over] Jerusalem and the Golan Heights and an endless diplomatic umbrella and help with his reelection campaign. Now, when Trump needs his help, Netanyahu cannot give him the cold shoulder. This is simply not an option.”
Netanyahu also expects additional gifts. He is pushing hard to arrange a surprise presidential visit to Jerusalem prior to the elections and trying to engineer a largely symbolic defense treaty between Israel and the United States. Netanyahu needs everything the president can do for him ahead of the September elections. Given the stakes, Netanyahu does not have the luxury of favoring Israel’s interests over his own. But though he is thinking primarily of himself, Netanyahu seems to believe his political survival is essential for the prosperity of the Jewish state, and thus the two are one and the same.
Netanyahu’s associates are also criticizing the decision. So is the leadership of the Likud and his own aides, not to mention the Foreign Ministry (which has been virtually dismantled under Netanyahu) and the security agencies. Almost everyone who understands anything about the delicate fabric of Israel’s relationship with the United States and American Jewry knows that banning the entry of elected American representatives, whatever their opinion of Israel, is tantamount to a declaration of war. This is how the pro-Israel liberal lobby in the United States, J-Street, described the decision.
Netanyahu, however, is not listening to this background noise. He wrote off American Jewry — including AIPAC — from the inventory of Israel’s strategic assets in the United States long ago. He is convinced that intermarriage between liberal American Jews and non-Jews will wipe this community off the map within the coming decade. Instead, he is nurturing Christian evangelists as Israel’s main source of support in the United States. They are the ones who have been delivering the goods over the past two years vis-à-vis the White House. He wrote off the Democratic Party long ago as well and is counting on Trump’s reelection in November 2020 — if he's still around when that happens. Meanwhile, all Netanyahu’s eggs are stacked in the basket of the coming September elections. All other considerations and interests can wait.
At the last moment, Aug. 16, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri decided to accept Tlaib's request to permit her entry into Israel on humanitarian grounds. Tlaib asked to enter Israel in order to visit her 90-year-old grandmother who lives in a Palestinian village in the West Bank. Deri agreed, but on several conditions. Tlaib committed to not breaking Israeli law and not exploiting her visit to incite against Israel or to advocate boycotts against it (although she later said she would not go ahead with the trip). These latest developments clearly demonstrate the complexity of the situation, in which Israeli law does not apply to the Palestinian villages in the West Bank, as Israel had not annexed these territories.
Ben Caspit is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse. He is also a senior columnist and political analyst for Israeli newspapers and has a daily radio show and regular TV shows on politics and Israel.