Alliance Between Netanyahu And Trump Making Support For Israel A Partisan Issue
Prime Minister Netanyahu's actions toward two Democratic Congresswomen,seemingly at the bidding of President Trump, is the latest example of the growing partisan divide over policy toward Israel.
The recent decision by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to bar entry into Israel by two Muslim-American Members of Congress has raised eyebrows in both Washington and Jerusalem as well as concerns that it is putting the bipartisan support Israel has enjoyed at risk:
WASHINGTON — By pushing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel into barring an official visit by the first two Muslim women in Congress, President Trump is doubling down on a strategy aimed at dividing the Democratic Party and pushing some Jewish voters into the arms of Republicans.
But people in both parties warn that over the long term, the president could further erode bipartisan support for Israel, which has long relied on the United States as its most important ally.
In the run-up to his 2020 re-election campaign, Mr. Trump has spent months attacking the two freshman Democrats, Representatives Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, angering the Democratic Party as he seeks to paint Republicans as Israel’s only true friend in Washington.
He has also marched in lock step with Mr. Netanyahu, who faces legislative elections in a few weeks. Mr. Netanyahu’s hard-line settlement policies and rigid bond with ultra-Orthodox Jews have also alienated Democrats, including many American Jews, posing a threat to the bipartisanship that has been fundamental to the two countries’ relationship since Israel’s founding in 1948.
If Israel becomes a partisan issue in the United States, advocates warn that there could be negative consequences for both countries. Israel’s security would be severely undermined without the political, economic and military support that flows from bipartisan backing in Washington. And if Israel is weakened, so too is the United States’ position in the Middle East, which is always stronger when both parties are behind it.
“You have a situation where Netanyahu is relying on Trump to help him in his re-election, and Trump is expecting Netanyahu to reciprocate,” said Martin S. Indyk, a former ambassador to Israel under President Bill Clinton. Mr. Trump’s election strategy, he said, was to paint Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Omar as the “face” of a Democratic Party that is anti-Israel because the two women have been critical of the country.
In a string of Twitter posts on Friday evening, Mr. Trump said just that, writing that Ms. Tlaib and Ms. Omar “are fast becoming the face of the Democrat Party” and that Ms. Tlaib had behaved “obnoxiously” toward Israel.
The bond between Israel and the United States has long been rooted in what Aaron David Miller, a veteran Middle East negotiator for both Republican and Democratic administrations, calls “a confluence of interests and values,” such as free speech and an open society. The cancellation of the congresswomen’s trip, he said, raised questions about those shared values.
“There is a perception, right or wrong, true or untrue, that the Netanyahu administration and the Trump administration are working hand in glove,” said Mark Mellman, the president of Democratic Majority for Israel, a nonprofit that works to ensure that the Democratic Party remains pro-Israel.
Israel’s stance, Mr. Mellman said, has made his task harder. “In our hyperpartisan world,” he said, “the friend of my enemy is my enemy, and to the extent that Democrats look at Trump as the enemy, if they see Israel or the Netanyahu administration as operating hand in glove, that gives them real pause.”
Mr. Netanyahu made clear his affinity for the Republican Party long before Mr. Trump moved into the White House. His relations with President Barack Obama were so strained that in 2015, in a rare breach of protocol, he circumvented the White House in accepting an invitation to address the Republican-led Congress. Representative Nancy Pelosi, then the Democratic leader, called the address an “insult” to the United States, and dozens of Democrats skipped it.
With Mr. Trump in office, the Netanyahu-Republican alliance has only strengthened. Mr. Trump’s policies, including moving the American Embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights (where Mr. Netanyahu named a new town after Mr. Trump in June, erecting a sign with his name in gold block letters), have made him more popular in Israel than he is at home. When the president pushed Mr. Netanyahu to bar entry to Ms. Omar and Ms. Tlaib, he was effectively calling in a favor.
The decision also appears to be putting Jewish Americans at odds with Israel in ways that haven’t been seen before:
A rabbi in St. Louis Park, Minn., was more than six thousand miles from Jerusalem when he heard the Israeli government decided to bar two Muslim members of Congress from making an official visit to the Jewish state.
But within minutes, his phone was flooded with calls from congregants, local Jewish agencies and lay leaders who plunged into what had become a familiar routine: Figuring out how to respond to yet another political battle over their congresswoman, Representative Ilhan Omar, and Israel.
“There was very much an attitude of, ‘oh, here we go again,'” said Rabbi Avi S. Olitzky. “The pendulum keeps swinging left and right, left and right. It’s dizzying and exhausting and distracting. Emotions are raw.”
For months, American Jews in Ms. Omar’s district and beyond have found themselves enmeshed in a deeply uncomfortable debate over the growing distance between traditional liberal American Jewish values and the political realities of an Israeli government that’s embraced hard-line policies and a deep alliance with President Donald Trump. On Thursday, in one of Mr. Trump’s most audacious moves yet, he successfully urged Israel to deny entrance to Ms. Omar and Representative Rashida Tlaib, who planned to tour the West Bank.
At Shabbat dinner tables, in synagogue sanctuaries, and even at summer camps, the new political firestorm in Washington and Jerusalem — and Mr. Trump’s fierce determination to turn anti-Semitism and support for Israel into partisan issues — has forced a series of emotional conversations over the place of Jews in American political life. It’s a conversation that comes at a particularly fraught moment, less than a year after deadly attacks on synagogues in Poway, Calif., and Pittsburgh, and as support for Israel divides the Democratic Party as never before.
To some Jews, the president’s attacks on the congresswomen are a fierce renunciation of anti-Semitism and a defense of Israel. But many others see their identity being used as a pawn for the political ambitions of Mr. Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a dynamic they fear could undermine the historically strong alliance between the United States and Israel and increase the security risks for their community at home.
“If Israel equals Trump, then there is a concern that opposition to Trump will transition, God forbid, into opposition to Israel,” Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, who leads Ohev Sholom, an Orthodox congregation in Washington, D.C., said a few hours before shabbat on Friday. “It is very dangerous.”
In a striking sign of united concern, major American Jewish organizations largely opposed the Israeli government’s decision to block the congresswomen on Thursday, even as some condemned the women for what they described as anti-Israel or anti-Semitic positions. Even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the bulwark Israel lobbying organization, took the unusual step of breaking with the Netanyahu government.
Sheila Katz, who leads the National Council of Jewish Women, called Israel’s ban “undemocratic and shortsighted.”
The close relationship between American Republicans and Israel is nothing new, of course. It has been a phenomenon that has grown to become something of an article of faith on the American right to the extent that any questioning of Israeli policy generally, and the policies of Prime Minister Netanyahu specifically, often leads one to be accused, without merit of course, of being anti-Semitic.
As I’ve noted before, this conservative orthodoxy on Israel wasn’t always the case:
There was a time when Republican Presidents and politicians were critical of Israeli actions and even openly defied the wishes of the Israeli government and its supporters in the United States. President Eisenhower put pressure on Israel, Britain, and France when those three nations invaded Egypt in an effort to seize the Suez Canal. President Nixon supported Israel during the Yom Kippur War, but was also critical of Israeli policy when it conflicted with his policy of currying favor with anti-Communist Arab nations that were also opposed to Israel. President George H.W. Bush’s Administration was similarly critical of Israel and actively lobbied the nation against retaliating when Saddam Hussein began lobbing Scud Missiles toward Israel during the Persian Gulf War in an effort to break the multinational coalition that was, quite literally, on Iraq’s doorstep. And, perhaps most significantly for contemporary Republicans, the policy of the Reagan Administration toward Israel in the 1980s was far from obsequious and often quite critical. For example, Reagan defied objections from Israel and its supporters in the U.S. and sold AWACS aircraft to Saudi Arabia, supported a United Nations resolution condemning Israel’s attack on a nuclear plant in Iraq, and strongly criticized the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982. Additionally, both the Reagan and Bush 41 Administrations called on Israel to reach out to Arabs as part of Middle East peace initiatives.
None of that would be welcome in the modern Republican Party. Not only is criticism of Israel seemingly not allowed, but even questioning the assertion that Israel is “America’s most important ally” or arguing that policies of the Israeli government vis a vis its neighbors or the Palestinians are wrong is met with attacks, derision, and the assertion that the person making the argument may be bigoted. This kind of attitude is as wrong when its applied to Israel as it would be when applied to the United States. Even accepting the notion that Israel is our “most important” ally, a debate assertion to be honest, must mean being willing to criticize that ally when they do something wrong. It also means recognizing that the interests of the United States and the interests of Israel, while often parallel are not identical. President Reagan recognized that fact, but one has to wonder what the new Republican orthodoxy on Israel would have to say about him today.
Notwithstanding this close affinity between the GOP and Israel, though, the vast majority of Jewish Americans remain generally loyal to the Democratic Party. In the 2016 election, for example, exit polling showed that 71% of Jewish American voters supported Hillary Clinton while just 23% supported Donald Trump. In the 2018 elections, that number jumped up, with 79% of Jewish Americans supporting Democratic candidates while just 17% supported Republicans. This has come despite the fact that Republicans have spent considerable efforts attempting to reach out to Jewish Americans, using the party’s staunch support for Israel as an argument for why they should abandon their long allegiance to the Democratic Party.
Despite this, there has largely been bipartisan unity when it comes to the relationship between the United States and Israel, with both parties being strongly supportive of whoever was in power in Jerusalem and Israeli authorities largely recognized the importance of maintaining good relations with both parties in Washington. That began to change during the Obama Administration, largely due to the fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu, who began his second stint as Prime Minister shortly after Barack Obama took office. For whatever reason, the personal relationship between the President and the Prime Minister remained frosty throughout Obama’s eight years in office notwithstanding the fact that Obama continued the policies of unwavering support for Israel that his predecessors had, by and large, observed. When Donald Trump took office, though, the relationship between Jerusalem and Washington changed significantly and the result has been a closer relationship between the two nations than we’ve seen in the past, something that carries with it dangers all its own.
One of the consequences of Netanyahu’s frostiness toward Obama and Trump’s obsequiousness toward Netanyahu and vice versa has been a growing partisan divide over the American relationship with Israel. Recent polling has shown that where Americans were once largely united around the idea of strong ties between the two countries there is now strong evidence that a rift is developing between the left and the right, with most independents joining the left in becoming more skeptical about American support for Israel than we’ve seen in the past. This divide ought to deeply concern Israeli officials since it’s obvious that, at some point, the Democrats will once again be in power in Washington. While it’s unlikely that this would result in a significant rift between the two nations, it does put Israeli leaders in a difficult position.
In the past, Israeli leaders could count on the fact that the United States would largely be in their corner. This was true under Republican and Democratic Presidents and without regard to which party controlled Congress. Now, with polling in the United States showing not only a deep divide between Republicans and Democrats over support for Israel but also a decline in pro-Israeli sentiment among self-identified Independents, the potential for problems in the future should be rather obvious.
In no small part, it strikes me that much of this can be laid at the feet of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has done more than any of his predecessors to stoke partisan fires here in the United States when he believes it to be in the interests of his country or, more specifically, in his personal political interests. This was most apparent, of course, during the Obama year when Netanyahu seemed to go out of his way to go behind the back of the Administration in communications with Republicans in Congress in which he clearly sought to undermine the ongoing negotiations with Iran over its nuclear weapons program This included a speech to Congress in March 2016 when he was running for re-election at the invitation of House Republicans, a decision that was opposed by most Americans. One could say the same thing of his recent actions, such as the ridiculous pandering of Trump by naming a town after him and, of course, last week’s decision to essentially do Trump’s bidding by barring Congresswoman Omar and Congresswoman Tlaib from entering the country.
The fact that this is occurring just weeks before he faces an election that could end his hold on power as well as criminal charges related to corruption while in office is most likely not coincidental. All of this has no doubt contributed to the partisan gap when it comes to American policy toward Israel, and if it continues it could mean changes in American policy in the future based solely on which party controls the White House. This would not be in Israel’s interests, of course, and given the fact that Israel is an important ally in the Middle East, it would not be in American interests either. What it suggests is that it would be better for Israeli leaders to be more mindful of the fact that there is more than one political party in the United States.