President Donald Trump is laying a trap and Israel is walking right into it. Breaking with accepted norms, Trump blatantly pressured Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to ban Democratic Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar from entering the country. Now, Israel says it will do just that. Big mistake.
It's difficult for small countries to ignore pressure from Washington, but Netanyahu has shown no hesitation in repeatedly aligning himself with Trump. In the short run, Israel (and Netanyahu, currently running a tough race for re-election) is benefitting from strengthening ties with the powerful President of the United States. But Netanyahu is playing a risky game, unquestioningly positioning Israel on the side of one the most unpopular US presidents in recent memory and helping Trump to deliberately erode bipartisan backing for Israel in the United States.
In the process, he is also undercutting Israel's democratic commitment to vigorous, free and open debate.
On Thursday, Trump tweeted, "It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit. They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds." It's clear the congresswomen have deeply unfavorable views about Israel, and Omar has made comments that dovetail with anti-Semitism, but she has retracted those. Trump's accusation is another move in his effort to use Israel as a politically divisive domestic issue.
Hours after Trump's tweet, Israel's deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely, announced, "We will not allow anyone who denies our right to exist in the world to enter the state."
Few things are more important to Israel's security than strong bipartisan support in the United States, and support for Israel is still one of the few areas in which Democrats and Republicans in Congress generally agree. But Trump is trying to persuade Israel's friends in the US that Democrats are Israel's enemies.
Over and over Trump makes statements such as "The Democrats have become an anti-Israel and anti-Jewish party." He is trying to secure the pro-Israel vote. That is ostensibly one of the reasons Trump has elevated Israel's Democratic critics, particularly Omar and Tlaib, hoping their views will be mistaken for the entire Democratic party's views. A number of the Democratic presidential candidates and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have condemned Israel's decision, giving Trump what he wants by forcing them to back the congresswomen who Trump claims hate Jews.
To be sure, there is a segment of the party that is sharply critical of Israel, of its treatment of Palestinians and its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Omar, in particular, has made disturbing statements, resorting to familiar anti-Semitic tropes, in 2012 accusing Israel of "hypnotizing" the world, in a tweet that continued, "may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doing of Israel." This year, she thanked her Jewish allies for "educating" her about antisemitism. But she and Tlaib remain critics of Israel.
Most Democrats in Congress, however, have a very different position. Just last month, the House voted overwhelmingly, by a margin of 398 to 17, to oppose the so-called BDS movement -- an international push for boycotts, sanctions and divestment targeting Israel. The House resolution, which does not prohibit joining the boycott, described BDS as an effort to delegitimize the country. The BDS movement places all the blame for the Israel-Palestinian conflict on Israel, and some of its critics, including some respected scholars, say it implicitly calls for Israel's destruction and is not a realistic plan to find a solution to the conflict.
While most Democratic members of Congress joined in rejecting BDS, Omar and Tlaib opposed the resolution. That, and their outspoken support for BDS, placed them in the crosshairs of a 2017 Israeli law that prohibits any foreigner who publicly calls for boycotts from entering the country.
Israel was wisely prepared to ignore the law in the case of Tlaib and Omar. Israel's ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, had already announced that Israel would allow Tlaib and Omar to visit, "Out of respect for the US Congress...we would not deny entry to any member of Congress into Israel. But Trump, who has been scaling up his attacks on the so-called "Squad," Democratic congress members Omar, Tlaib, along with Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, was clearly unhappy with Israel's decision.
In recent days, two large US congressional delegations -- one Democratic, the other Republican -- visited Israel, bringing more than 70 members of Congress. Blocking two Democrats would arguably raise their profile, harden their anti-Israel stances, and help Trump paint the Democrats as the enemies of Israel.
Democratic leaders have been waging an uphill battle against Trump's efforts to paint the party as an enemy of Israel. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has tried to play down attention to Omar and Tlaib. "I am not worried," he said, "because I know that the Democratic Party has been one of Israel's strongest supporters throughout its history, and continues to be so."
Amazingly, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC, also criticized the decision. "Every member of Congress," AIPAC said in a statement, "should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand."
Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, the Senate's top Democrat, also chastised Netanyahu's move, saying "many strong supporters of Israel will be deeply disappointed," by the decision, calling it a "sign of weakness" that Israel should reverse.
By deciding to ban the visit, Netanyahu is not only undercutting Israel's tradition of free debate. He is also boosting Trump's efforts to portray the Democrats as anti-Israel -- even as anti-Semites. It's another move, like his unabashed embrace of Trump, that risks pushing the Democrats away. Trump will not be president forever. When a Democratic leader moves into the Oval Office, Israelis may wish their government had taken better care to cultivate their friends on both sides of the aisle.