JERUSALEM - In the eyes of critics, Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to bar two Democratic congresswomen at the request of President Donald Trump is the latest reckless gamble by a prime minister willing to sacrifice Israel’s national interests for short-term gain.
The move infuriated Democrats and risked turning Israel into even more of a partisan issue at a time when Americans are fiercely divided and Trump faces a tough fight for re-election.
And yet the pursuit of such allegedly short-sighted policies has kept Netanyahu and his Likud party in power for more than a decade, making him the longest-serving leader in Israel’s history. The latest move, popular among his right-wing base, comes as he seeks an unprecedented fourth term in next month’s elections.
Israel’s steady, two-decade lurch to the right shows no sign of reversing. Its refusal to accede to international demands for concessions to the Palestinians has not only brought no serious consequences from Washington, but is now being rewarded and encouraged by the White House.
“Since Likud came to power in 1977 and Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, Israel has lived with dire warnings about the growing rift between American and Israeli Jews, or about the contradiction between Israel’s claims to be a democracy and its undemocratic rule over more than one million Palestinians,” said Nathan Thrall, the head of the Arab-Israeli Project at the Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank.
“The sky has not yet fallen.”
Last week Netanyahu barred the entry of Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, newly-elected Muslim congresswomen who have been fierce critics of Trump and of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Netanyahu said the two were banned over their support of the international boycott movement, but Israel had said as recently as last month that all members of Congress would be welcome.
Instead, the decision seems to have been made in response to Trump, who has sought to make the left-wing congresswomen the face of the Democratic Party as he seeks to fire up his base ahead of the 2020 elections. Trump said he spoke to “people over there” about the visit, without elaborating, and tweeted that it would be a “show of weakness” for Israel to let them in.
In the wake of the decision, Israeli commentators and analysts said Netanyahu had blatantly disregarded a bedrock principle of Israeli foreign policy — that it remain above America’s partisan fray.
“The problem is not with these two members of Congress, or with the boycott movement against Israel, whose achievements are zero,” columnist Nahum Barnea wrote in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth on Friday.
“The problem is that Israel is losing the Democratic Party, which for years was Israel’s mainstay in the U.S. It is losing its elected officials, and what is much worse, it is losing its voters... Anyone who is opposed to Trump is finding it more and more difficult to support Israel.”
Netanyahu’s critics issued similar laments a decade ago, when he dismissed calls from a popular and newly elected President Barack Obama to freeze the growth of settlements in the occupied territories in order to relaunch peace talks with the Palestinians. Netanyahu had a notoriously prickly relationship with Obama, and was widely seen as siding with Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 U.S. elections, allegations the prime minister denied. In 2015, Netanyahu drew fire after addressing a joint session of Congress to argue against Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran — an extraordinary breach of U.S. protocol.
But Israel suffered few if any consequences. Obama signed the largest military aid deal ever concluded with Israel — or any other country — in his last year in office. The Obama administration also largely shielded Israel from criticism at the U.N. and other international bodies, even as the peace process went nowhere and settlements continually expanded.
Under Trump, things have only gotten better for Netanyahu. The U.S. has withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal, recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, recognized the annexation of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and cut aid to the Palestinians — all without calling for a Palestinian state or a suspension of settlement activity.
Those moves proved divisive in the United States — but not in Israel, where polls find Trump is more popular than in his own country.
The partisan alliance between Trump and Netanyahu is “really dangerous in terms of Israeli national interests,” said Gayil Talshir, a political science professor at Hebrew University. “But I don’t think the voters in Israel vote on these kinds of issues.”
The decision to bar Tlaib and Omar could pay further dividends. Netanyahu has spoken of annexing parts of the West Bank, something for which the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has expressed support . That would be seen by the Palestinians and much of the international community as yet another major blow to any hopes for a two-state solution, but could give Netanyahu a boost ahead of next month’s elections.
His supporters, meanwhile, say it’s the Israeli media that endangers national interests.
“The same media that enlisted to advance President Obama’s suicidal peace plans and nuclear agreement, and which cast every one of the historic measures that President Donald Trump took in Israel as dangerous, has now committed itself to a nightmarish depiction of the damage that supposedly has been caused to our relations with the Democratic Party,” columnist Eldad Beck wrote Sunday in Israel Hayom, a pro-Netanyahu daily.
Netanyahu’s luck could run out.
He faces a pre-indictment hearing and a series of corruption cases . He has denied any wrongdoing and, like Trump, has accused the media and law enforcement of a witch-hunt. After failing to form a coalition government following April’s elections, Netanyahu dissolved parliament, forcing a repeat vote scheduled for Sept. 17.
There’s also the possibility that Trump might lose re-election, and that the next U.S. president could be one of the many Democrats who criticized the decision to bar the congresswomen. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also criticized it, but she told The Associated Press that the U.S. relationship with Israel can “withstand” Trump and Netanyahu.
“The decreasing support for Israel among progressives is a very slow moving and long term threat,” Thrall said. “It has not yet translated into any changes in policy or even in proposals by Democrats to change policy... So Israel and Netanyahu don’t have much to worry about right now.”