Israelis find themselves rattled by an existential concern: What if President Trump’s tumultuous style of diplomacy has revealed that a cornerstone of their national identity is slipping away?
Until this week, the notion that a United States president could question the loyalty of Jewish voters, or that a U.S. official could publicly hold forth about the state of Israel as a rogue nation antithetical to American values, remained confined to the nightmares of Israel’s most apprehensive leaders.
This week, both those scenarios came to life.
On Monday, at a news conference at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) denounced Israel as a false ally to the United States whose behavior, in Omar’s words, “is not consistent with being a democracy.”
On Tuesday, in an Oval Office reaction to their comments, Trump said that “any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty,” provoking an outcry from Jewish groups distressed by his use of an ancient anti-Semitic stereotype.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remained silent.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, a fellow member of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party, on Wednesday called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and, in comments immediately released in Israel, said that “the relationship between the state of Israel and the United States is a link between peoples, which relies on historical ties, deep and strong friendships and shared values that are not dependent on the relationship with one particular party.”
A crisis, from the viewpoint of many in Israel, began with Netanyahu, who broke a diplomatic norm of his own last week by banning the entry to Israel by Tlaib and Omar. They are the first Muslim women to serve in Congress, and compose half of the so-called Squad of four young Democratic legislators Trump has vilified in the run-up to his 2020 campaign for reelection.
Tlaib, the Michigan-born daughter of Palestinian immigrants, and Omar, a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from Somalia, support the BDS movement, which promotes boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Israel to protest its treatment of Palestinians.
Netanyahu’s ban represented a stark reversal for the Israeli government.
In July, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, a confidant of the prime minister, announced that despite their views, a customary welcome would be extended to Tlaib and Omar “out of respect for Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America.”
But under pressure from Trump, who had tweeted that “it would show great weakness if Israel allowed” the congresswomen to visit, Netanyahu reversed course.
In Israel and in the United States, the about-face was lambasted, including by some of Netanyahu’s staunchest allies.
In a blistering rebuke, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, who recently returned from leading a group of 41 Democratic House members on an annual visit to Israel sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, associated with the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC, said that denying members of Congress entry into Israel was “a self-inflicted wound by one of America’s closest allies, one of our closest friends, and a vibrant democracy.”
Trump’s role in prodding Israel was “unacceptable,” Hoyer said.
While most congressional Republicans remained silent, one indication that Netanyahu’s reversal would have significant repercussions came from GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who tweeted that “denying them entry into Israel is a mistake. Being blocked is what they really hoped for all along in order to bolster their attacks against the Jewish state.”
In Jerusalem, the bipartisan condemnation of Netanyahu, a close Trump ally who has turned his relationship with the president into a centerpiece of his campaign for reelection in September, looked alarmingly different from the cross-party American support that Israel has counted on since its inception.
Israelis sympathetic with Netanyahu’s predicament as he grappled with an insistent Trump and the implications of a high-profile visit from openly antagonistic lawmakers lamented his decision and fretted about the possibility of enduring implications.
Former minister and Likud Party elder Dan Meridor said he only “hopes the Israeli-American relationship will recover from the very serious mistakes being made right now.”
In an interview with The Times, he said Netanyahu’s decision was “an error in every possible way.”
By failing to “stand up to our friends in the Trump administration,” Meridor said, the prime minister caused substantial harm to Israel’s image.
And acknowledging that Omar and Tlaib “are not friends of Israel,” he said it was unwise and dangerous “to play to the hands of BDS. We should show ourselves to be a nation anyone can come visit— and these are members of Congress. Why shouldn’t they come?”
Significant fissures in right-wing support for Netanyahu emerged from conversations with some 10 figures associated with his voting bloc, none of whom approved of barring Tlaib and Omar’s entry.
Ben-Dror Yemini, an author and frequent defender of Israel in the international arena, remarked in Yediot Aharonot, the top-selling Israeli tabloid in which he writes weekly, that not a single columnist had come out in support of the ban.
Unlike other countries, he said, Israel, with its specific regional security concerns, “needs the Democratic Party, which is the choice of the vast majority of Jews in the United States, and which will one day return to power.”
Even Israelis in agreement with Trump’s repeated claims that Tlaib and Omar’s positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict epitomize the Democratic Party expressed deep qualms about the long-term implications of Israel’s move.
Democrats have “adopted Islamism as part of their progressive agenda, like the environment and human rights,” said Amnon Lord, a columnist at Israel Hayom, a daily founded by Las Vegas casino mogul and GOP donor Sheldon Adelson with the purpose of supporting Netanyahu. But “after saying we should let them in, a Trump tweet cannot dramatically change Israel’s view regarding a sovereign decision. It looks ridiculous.”
Analysts were loath to concede that the crisis stemming from the congresswomen’s canceled trip — Tlaib declined a conditional offer by Israel to visit — could represent an inflection point in the 71-year U.S.-Israeli relationship, but across the board, right-wing observers said they believed it marked a significant moment in a process that started before Trump came to office, and has accelerated during his term.
Israel emerged from the situation, which could have been limited to “a deliberately provocative” but strategically insignificant tour of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, “looking less of a sovereign nation,” said Eran Lerman, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and a former deputy director of Israel’s National Security Council.
If Israel comes across as if it takes orders from Washington, he said, “it may tempt players in the region to put pressure on American policymakers” instead of engaging directly with Israel, diminishing the country’s standing in the Middle East.
“We in the United States have a constructive role to play,” Omar said at the St. Paul conference, noting Trump’s promise of an as-yet unseen, “ultimate” plan for Mideast peace, coordinated by his son-in-law and advisor, Jared Kushner.
Mentioning the billions of dollars in aid Israel is granted by congressional consensus, Omar said, “This is predicated on them being an important ally in the region, and the only democracy in the Middle East. But, denying a visit to duly elected members of Congress is not consistent with being an ally.”
The problem, many Israelis fear, is just beginning.
“With the moribund Ultimate Deal in perennial rollout, and 2020 on the horizon, Trump’s asks of Netanyahu will almost certainly be political and not diplomatic,” said Shalom Lipner, a 26-year veteran of the Israeli prime minister’s office who is now a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council.
Tarnopolsky is a special correspondent.