Trump Put Netanyahu in an Untenable Position
By: Daniel Pipes
Outlet: Washington Post
Date: August 16, 2019
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
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.