Home > News > The U.S. president asks you for ‘a favor.’ How could it hurt your country?
218 views 9 min 0 Comment

The U.S. president asks you for ‘a favor.’ How could it hurt your country?

Let’s look at what happened in Israel when Netanyahu acceded to Trump’s request to ban two members of Congress.

- October 2, 2019

Imagine you’re Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, and the U.S. president asks you “to do us a favor” by conducting investigations that might harm his political rivals. You’re in charge of a large and geopolitically important country — one that’s struggling economically and politically and fighting an armed conflict with separatists supported by Russia. How do you respond?

Understandably, most U.S. reporting and commentary on President Trump’s call and the resulting impeachment inquiry has so far investigated what it means for U.S. politics. Let’s look here at what this exchange might mean for Ukraine — by looking at what happened in another country when Trump asked an ally to make trouble for his Democratic opponents: Israel.

Israel’s experience responding to Trump’s pressure

On Aug. 15, the Israeli government denied entry to two U.S. members of Congress, Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). Israel had originally planned to allow the visit. Then Trump tweeted that Israel should not allow them to visit, calling them “a disgrace.” Hours later, Israel denied the two entry.

The scandal had several effects on Israel and its relations with the United States. First, it briefly distracted the nation from attending to more important issues. Second, it cracked Israel’s pro-U.S. consensus internally and eroded American public support for Israel. Perhaps most important, the events may have set off a long-term crisis in relations between Israel and the U.S. Democratic Party.

And all that happened despite the fact that Israel is a strong, economically advanced country with a long history of close relations with the United States. Such a scandal might hurt Ukraine even more.

The scandal distracted the Israeli government from other important issues

Neither Omar nor Tlaib is a friend of Israel. Denying them entry certainly did not harm Netanyahu’s standing with his base and possibly even helped him politically. But for several days, the Israeli government was consumed by a crisis for which it had not prepared — and diverted attention and resources from such pressing security concerns as the Gaza Strip, Syria and Iran.

Something similar is happening for Ukraine now. Zelensky came to the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York hoping to draw the world’s attention to Ukraine’s armed conflict in its Donbas region. The scandal completely overshadowed his agenda. This might have serious consequences for Ukraine. Zelensky is eager to end the conflict in Donbas. He’s achieved some important results. For instance, Ukraine and Russia recently swapped prisoners, widely considered a sign of thawing relations. And Zelensky has begun removing troops, dismantling military installations and rebuilding infrastructure near Luhansk, a move toward a negotiated solution. Yet instead of focusing on this progress, the news media asked Zelensky about his interactions with Trump. Both Ukrainian nationalists and pro-Russian forces who might wish to renew fighting may get the time and opportunity to sabotage progress toward a solution.

Changing attitudes toward the U.S.

When the U.S. president pressures leaders of smaller and weaker nations, those leaders often find it hard to push back. In this summer’s dust-up, Netanyahu and Trump wanted the same thing: keep Omar and Tlaib out of Israel. But if Trump hadn’t tweeted, Netanyahu might not have risked a clash with two members of the powerful U.S. Congress.

But having these two controversial leaders — Trump and Netanyahu — so publicly aligned caused cracks in the previously unanimous support for the United States in Israel. Of course, Netanyahu’s opponents object to the overall pattern of his relations with Trump, not just this high-profile instance of bowing to the U.S. president’s pressure. But this incident changed the tone. Just before the Israeli general elections on Sept. 17, Trump suggested a mutual defense treaty between the United States and Israel. Netanyahu’s opponents immediately labeled it an attempt to bolster Netanyahu’s chances, and vocally and forcefully rejected it.

We do not yet have comprehensive public opinion data on Ukrainians’ attitudes toward Zelensky’s conduct. But some Ukrainian politicians and citizens are already worrying about secret and potentially corrupt relations between Trump and Zelensky or fear that their leader was too accommodating toward a foreign country. Being charged with surrendering Ukraine’s interests would be especially damaging for Zelensky, who is Jewish and a Russian speaker — attributes that make Ukrainian nationalists consider him suspect. Such accusations might further radicalize the small but vocal, violent and anti-Semitic far right.

Many Ukrainian citizens took to the streets in 2004 to 2005 and in 2013 to 2014 to support the country’s turn from Russia to the West because they saw the West as less corrupt and more honorable. If Ukrainians come to believe that U.S. politics are also corrupt, their pro-Western and pro-democratic attitudes will diminish as result.

Changing attitudes within the U.S.

Perhaps most important, when Trump tries to use foreign leaders to affect U.S. policy, he may be creating a long-term rift between that ally and the Democrats. When Netanyahu had to choose between pleasing Trump and offending the Democrats, he opted for the former. But such a decision has longer-term risks.

Israeli security and well-being could suffer if the Democratic Party ceases to back the Israeli government. Some factions of the Democratic Party were already wary of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians; having Omar and Tlaib so publicly dismissed brought that rift into the open — with a real risk that it might continue to widen. In response, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel American lobbying organization, took the rare step of publicly disagreeing with the Israeli government’s decision.

Ukraine doesn’t have such strong historical ties with the United States and isn’t supported by powerful organizations like AIPAC. And so its government has even more reasons to be alarmed. Ukraine’s security depends on bipartisan U.S. support. If Zelensky’s government did Trump the “favor” he asked for, that might easily fracture what has been a bipartisan consensus.

For both Israel and Ukraine, the practical implications of such a rift with the Democratic Party probably won’t be clear during Trump’s presidency. But Trump’s 2019 actions may affect U.S.-Israel and U.S.-Ukraine relations for some time — perhaps even pushing Israel toward China or Ukraine toward Russia as their main great power allies.

Eugene Finkel is an associate professor of international affairs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.