Netanyahu and Trump: Undoing Decades of Israeli Public Diplomacy

(Photo Credit: Al Drago/Bloomberg)

In barring Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib (MI) and Ilhan Omar (MN) from entering Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu is undoing decades of bipartisan U.S.-Israel relations. On August 15, the Prime Minister of Israel announced the decision, citing a law that “prohibits the entry of those who call for and work to impose boycotts on Israel.” A day later, Israel approved Representative Tlaib’s request to see her grandmother in the West Bank based on “humanitarian grounds,” but posing humiliating conditions that she rejected, discrediting the initial justification.

The decision to block two members of the United States government has backfired. It has reaped dozens of Democratic (and some Republican) congressional condemnations, as well as statements from pro-Israel groups calling for Israel to reverse its decision, deeming it “weak,” “shortsighted,” “wrong,” and undermining Israel’s “democratic” foundations. The largest pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), broke with Netanyahu’s decision and tweeted that “every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience [the U.S.]’s democratic ally Israel firsthand.”

Public Diplomacy against his favor

It is unlikely, given Israel’s political landscape, that Netanyahu will lose the election next month. On Thursday, his campaign released an ad equating the Israeli “right” with security, urging voters to vote for Likud to maintain Israel’s preparation “for every scenario.” The current “scenario” – blocking the congresswomen – is miscalculated. Although Representatives Tlaib and Omar have spoken out against the Israeli occupation and settlement expansion, and in support of the BDS movement, they cause no direct harm to the Jewish state. If anything, they place themselves in harm’s way. As Muslim women of color, and staunch critics of Israeli policies, entering Israel would make them potential subjects of verbal and physical abuse while visiting Occupied Palestine.

Bibi is cornered: he could either reverse the decision and try to salvage Israel’s public image in the United States, or hold his ground to appeal to his domestic supporters. The Israeli election is one month away, but Israeli prestige abroad needs Netanyahu’s immediate attention. Leading elements of the American media are giving Netanyahu the MBS* treatment, shattering his image as an untouchable longtime U.S. ally, and exposing him for who he is: a corrupt, autocratic and Islamophobic racist.

The Trumpist and the Trump

Whether President Trump vacates the Oval Office in 2021 or 2025, there is a good chance that a Democrat will succeed him. Mr. Trump has dominated the GOP since 2016, leaving little opportunity for alternative Republican voices. If he loses in 2020, or completes a second term in 2024, a Democrat, whether a friend or critic of Israel, will likely come to power. By then, decades of U.S.-Israel relations will have been irreparably damaged. Israel relies on bipartisan support from Congress – this includes foreign aid packages, military support, pro-Israeli legislation, and backing at the United Nations. However, Trump is campaigning on the distinction between the pro-Israeli Republican Party and the allegedly anti-Israeli Democratic Party. This injection of naked partisanship into the relationship will weaken Israel’s ability to count on both major American political parties in the future.

For Trumpist Netanyahu, flattering the incumbent American President has become an effective way of advancing Israeli interests with little to no international resistance. Trump has given Bibi a security blanket, bolstering his confidence against the international community. Post-Trump, this blanket will be ripped away.  

Trump’s targeting of two congresswomen of color has triggered a shift in the American narrative on Palestine. Rather than ignoring discriminatory Israeli policies, major American news outlets and Democratic Presidential candidates have taken issue with Netanyahu’s ban. This high-profile incident is a reflection of Palestinians’ daily plight, and it is being highlighted by influential American voices to the detriment of the Israeli government.

Complementary Racism

The Israeli government is engaging in the same behavior it denounces elsewhere. It has frequently used the shortcomings of other Middle Eastern countries to justify actions against the Palestinian people. It brags about democracy, openness, LGBTQ rights, and having an Arab judge on the Supreme Court, then bans two members of the U.S. government from entering the territory it controls.

During the 2015 election, Netanyahu warned his supporters about Arabs going to the polls in “droves.” He damaged his international reputation with this racism, but achieved a domestic victory. Last year, Netanyahu met with Hungarian nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban. He called him a “true friend of Israel,” despite worldwide Jewish condemnation of Mr. Orban’s controversial anti-Semitic remarks. Mr. Orban is a white Eastern European, and Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar are brown and black Muslim women. All are high-profile government officials, all have been accused of making anti-Semitic comments (falsely in the cases of Omar and Tlaib), and only one was welcomed by the Israeli government.

This racist crackdown is not unprecedented. Israel has detained thousands of Arabs, Palestinians, and high-ranking foreign members of diplomatic corps and international bodies at airports and check-points over their political views or ethnic backgrounds. This includes ordering the deportation of Omar Shakir, a director of Human Rights Watch, and, ironically, the detention of Reda Mansour, a Druze who is Israel’s ambassador to Panama. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar are merely the latest victims. Israel’s racism complements Donald Trump’s, and America’s defense of its elected officials may be the first true step against it.



*Mohammad Bin Salman

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About Laura Albast 5 Articles
Laura Albast is Palestinian-American and works at the Institute for Palestine Studies. She holds a BA in Political Studies from the American University of Beirut, and an MA in International Affairs and Communication from Boston University. Her research has focused on public diplomacy, arms control, and community health work in the Middle East. She is also a professional translator.

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