Netanyahu takes a big loss for Trump's little win against 'the squad'

Analysis: The president's minor moment of triumph required real sacrifice from the Israeli leader — who delivered it.
Image: Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., attend a news conference on Capitol Hill on July 15, 2019.
Even AIPAC split with Netanyahu over the wisdom of Israel's decision to bar half "the squad" from the country.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call file

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By Jonathan Allen

WASHINGTON — A real friend doesn't ask for too much.

President Donald Trump may have done just that by pressuring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to deny Reps. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., entry into his country because of their support for the BDS movement, which advocates for boycotting Israel, divesting from it and sanctioning it.

For Trump, it was a minor moment of triumph — a signal of contempt to half of "the squad" lawmakers, all women of color, who fought back when he harassed them with racist invective several weeks ago. But it required real sacrifice from Netanyahu: He had to make Israel look bad to make Trump happy. In doing so, he handed his critics around the world pallets full of rhetorical ammunition.

Netanyahu showed in stark relief that speech is limited in Israel. He risked further deterioration of support for his country within a Democratic Party that lays claim to the vast majority of Jewish voters. And he allowed the Jewish people, survivors of some of the world's worst tyrants since the advent of monotheism, to be portrayed as frightened, either of the two congresswomen or of Trump.

That was the cost of Trump's friendship Thursday.

Omar lined up to whack Israel with an extra special measure of red-white-and-blue self-righteous indignation.

"The irony of the 'only democracy' in the Middle East making such a decision is that it is both an insult to democratic values and a chilling response to a visit by government officials from an allied nation," she said on Twitter, noting that, as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, it's her job to conduct oversight of U.S. policy toward Israel.

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The move was deemed bad enough for Israel — harmful enough to that country — that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is usually as close to Netanyahu as his suit, softly but publicly disagreed with it.

"We disagree with Reps. Omar and Tlaib's support for the anti-Israel and anti-peace BDS movement, along with Rep. Tlaib's calls for a one-state solution," AIPAC wrote in a tweet. "We also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand."

A relatively new Israeli law gives the government flexibility to approve or deny access to public figures who promote the BDS movement. While the pair do back that effort, they are outliers in Congress. The House passed an anti-BDS resolution last month with only 17 dissenting votes, including Omar and Tlaib. It had 351 co-sponsors, accounting for more than 80 percent of the House.

But as Omar and Tlaib made plans to visit Israel and Palestinian territory this month, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, said that they should not have a problem gaining entry.

Trump didn't agree.

"It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit," Trump tweeted Thursday morning, after news of the decision had broken but before the Israeli government had confirmed it. "They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds."

Netanyahu offered an explanation in a statement released shortly thereafter.

"As a vibrant and free democracy, Israel is open to any critic and criticism, with one exception: Israel's law prohibits the entry of people who call and operate to boycott Israel, as is the case with other democracies that prevent the entry of people whose perception harms the country," he said. He added that the congresswomen were deemed troublemakers because their itinerary didn't include meetings with government officials.

"Their intent is to hurt Israel and increase its unrest," he said.

The odds that the congresswomen would have any real effect on unrest in the Middle East are, of course, slim to none. But by refusing to allow them into the country, Israel didn't just allow them to decry its policies. It gave them a higher platform from which to do so — and, in the eyes of some, the higher ground.

As Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida put it, "being blocked is what they really hoped for" in the first place.

"I disagree 100% with Reps. Tlaib & Omar on #Israel & am the author of the #AntiBDS bill we passed in the Senate," he wrote on Twitter. "But denying them into #Israel is a mistake."

Trump has long worked to use Israel as a wedge to divide Jewish voters from the Democratic Party, and Omar and Tlaib are part and parcel of that strategy.

The congresswomen "are the face of the Democrat Party, and they HATE Israel!" Trump tweeted later in the day.

Whatever their feelings toward Israel, neither Tlaib nor Omar asked Netanyahu for anything more than the courtesy that has been extended to members of Congress from both parties for decades as a means of bolstering the relationship between the two countries: the right to visit.

What Trump sought — and got — was more than any friend had a right to expect.