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What does Israel’s response to two U.S. congresswomen mean for the future?

The U.S.-Israel relationship has been rocky for years.

- August 16, 2019

Israel announced Thursday that it would deny entry to two Democratic congresswomen, Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, after President Trump tweeted:

Various news outlets reported that, behind the scenes, Trump had pressured Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to bar the two congresswomen because they support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Friday, Israel approved a humanitarian waiver to allow Tlaib to visit her grandmother in the West Bank.

Trump has lambasted Omar and Tlaib before. And he has previously tried to score political points with American Jews and evangelicals by appearing to defend Israel and attack its critics. So although the tweet does not represent new rhetoric or a new position for Trump, it does represent a sharp turn in diplomatic norms. No U.S. president has ever encouraged Israel to bar elected members of Congress from entry. This event will contribute to the continued debates within the American Jewish community about Israel’s place in its communal identity.

So what will this mean for the future?

1. How does this affect the American-Israeli relationship?

The American-Israeli relationship has been on the rocks for a number of years. Observers like to assume that there was once an idyllic moment in the relationship that, depending on partisan affiliation, has been ruined either by Barack Obama or Trump.

It’s true that some U.S. presidents got along nicely with some Israeli prime ministers. Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak were considered quite chummy, and Clinton got along well with both Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. Ariel Sharon and George W. Bush shared a number of policy priorities that made for a good working relationship.

But every U.S. administration has had its share of problems with Israel, from John F. Kennedy’s clash with David Ben-Gurion over Israel’s nuclear program to Ronald Reagan’s regular disputes with Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir.

This should not be surprising. The United States is a superpower with global interests and allies across the world. Israel is a regional power with much narrower interests, with a particular interest in regional conflicts and threats. There are bound to be tensions between the two.

That said, the relationship has been fraying more than usual in the last decade, owing to the growing political polarization of the U.S.-Israel alliance. Obama offended Israel by insisting that Netanyahu freeze the building of settlements in the West Bank to entice Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas back to talks. Netanyahu governments have actively worked since then to tie Israel’s fortunes to the Republican Party at the expense of bipartisanship. Netanyahu aggressively campaigned against Obama’s signature foreign policy success, the nuclear deal with Iran, going so far as to work with Republicans to publicly call Obama out during a speech to Congress — in the United States’ own legislative building. Netanyahu’s aides and supporters accused Obama of acting against Israel because of his Muslim father, while others regularly accused Obama of abandoning Israel.

Trump has built on Netanyahu’s efforts to connect support for Israel with the Republican Party. He regularly accuses Democrats of forsaking Israel. This latest tweet is only the most recent, if pointed, example of this long-standing pattern.

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2. What will this do to the much-discussed influence of American Jewish lobby groups?

There are many reasons for the close American-Israeli relationship, including shared strategic interests, some affinities between the two publics, and a very active set of Jewish lobby organizations. Those lobby groups, however, have been strong only when they’ve been able to keep both the Democrats and Republicans committed to a strong U.S.-Israel relationship.

Netanyahu’s and Trump’s efforts to make Israel a wedge issue in U.S. politics has and will continue to undermine this effort. Under Obama, right wing and far-right American Jewish groups — such as the Republican Jewish Coalition, the Zionist Organization of America and the Emergency Committee for Israel — argued that their work was necessary because the president was undermining a close American-Israeli relationship and weakening Israel.

No one can argue that now. Indeed, the Emergency Committee for Israel no longer even operates. But the damage has been done. American Jewish groups that claim to represent the American Jewry or the political center will have a harder time convincing Democrats that America needs Israel, and should stay close to it.

This will make it harder for organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that are committed to building bipartisan support for Israel. AIPAC has tried to walk a fine line between Trump and the Democratic Party, avoiding criticism of the president while indicating to Democrats that it wants to keep working with them. AIPAC’s tweet in response to the Netanyahu announcement is a good example of this approach. It announced that while support for BDS is wrong, “We also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand.”

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3. How will this affect the Israeli election campaign? Is this bad for Netanyahu?

Partisans have accused U.S. presidents of interfering in Israeli elections before. Clinton, Bush and Obama all made visits or oblique statements designed to hint at their support for a particular candidate for prime minister in the past. But Trump’s tweet is the most direct interference yet.

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Of course, Netanyahu has made his own campaign efforts to tie himself to Trump. For example, he’s sponsored a huge campaign poster showing a smiling Netanyahu and Trump shaking hands. So the immediate effect of banning the two congresswomen might well be in Netanyahu’s favor, as he fights for both center-right and right wing votes as the September election nears.

But in the longer term, it will constrain Netanyahu. He is now firmly tied to Trump, and whatever policies Trump pursues that affect Israel will be identified as supported by Netanyahu. Given Trump’s mercurial foreign policy — such as his bellicose rhetoric and overtures to Iran — that puts Netanyahu in a precarious position.

Many in the United States believe that during elections, Israelis vote on their incumbents’ relationship with the United States. That isn’t true, though an overall positive relationship is widely seen as important. But Netanyahu’s reversal to allow Tlaib — but not Omar — in on humanitarian grounds so she can visit her 90-year-old grandmother in the West Bank makes Netanyahu look even worse, as it came under a backlash from congressional Democrats and U.S. Jewish groups. Netanyahu’s challengers can now claim that Netanyahu is letting Trump determine what is in Israel’s best interest and how it manages its own borders.

Brent Sasley is associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington and co-author of “Politics in Israel: Governing a Complex Society.”