Israel should resist Trump’s efforts to politicize support
The two of us have long been committed to the U.S.-Israeli relationship, understanding its importance for both countries. It is not only that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, but it stands as a bulwark against radical Islamist threats, whether coming from Iran or ISIS. From this standpoint, it is both our values and our interests that have underpinned the U.S.-Israeli relationship over the years.
Values and interests also led Israel to be an American interest — not a Republican or Democratic interest.
Politics can be fickle and being a bipartisan interest was critical to Israel’s standing in this country. True, at times, historically one party or the other might have been more sympathetic toward Israel. But the important point is that the fundamental nature of Israel being nonpartisan was always sustained, and even when there were policy differences between Israeli governments and American administrations — Carter, Bush 41, and Obama — Congressional support for Israel remained largely bipartisan. That is at risk today, and not simply because there is a segment of the Democratic Party that seems more inclined to be critical of Israel, less aware of its history, and largely dismissive or unaware of the threats it faces. It is remarkable that for some, like Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), it is as if two unilateral Israeli withdrawals from southern Lebanon and Gaza, the death of half a million Syrians — which includes thousands of Palestinians — Hezbollah ruling over Lebanon, Iranian efforts to embed itself in Syria and along the Golan Heights, Hamas rockets and tunnels into Israel, and ISIS in the Sinai do not exist.
Of course, Omar and Tlaib are not the sum total of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
Moreover, the risk or threat to Israel’s bipartisan posture did not begin with Donald Trump; Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address to the U.S. Congress in 2015 against President Obama’s prospective nuclear deal with Iran, worked out in an invitation by then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) behind the backs of the Democratic Party leadership and the Obama White House, was a terrible blow to Israel’s nonpartisan identity. But Donald Trump has taken this to an entirely different level.
It may well be a natural byproduct of his politics of polarization — but there can be little doubt that President Trump is the first president consciously to make Israel a partisan issue and to seek to drive a wedge between Israel and the Democrats. His latest statement that Jews who vote Democratic show “lack of knowledge or great disloyalty” is stunning not just for its rank partisanship but its suggestion that opposition to his policies means disloyalty either to the United States or to Israel — the former suggests one cannot question his policies without being a traitor, the latter raises the ugly specter for Jews of dual loyalty.
None of this means that we believe that President Trump’s support for Israel is being driven solely by partisan motivations; nor is it to say that his administration’s strong symbolic support for Israel’s right of self-defense or moving of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem does not send a powerful message that America will always be there for Israel — and that is clearly important. But if moving the embassy was done to make a statement about getting the world to adjust to the reality that some significant part of Jerusalem would always be Israel’s capital, why were no Democrats invited to the opening ceremony? This should have been a statement on behalf of all Americans. It wasn’t, hardly the act of someone who was thinking about Israel’s long-term well-being.
Perhaps any prime minister of Israel would have sought to take advantage of Trump’s readiness to support Israel symbolically, and certainly Benjamin Netanyahu has done so. But at a time when Trump seeks to make Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib the face of the Democratic Party, the prime minister of Israel should not be abetting that policy.
Netanyahu’s initial instinct was clearly to allow Omar and Tlaib to enter Israel. Note, for example, the July 19 statement of his ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer: “Out of respect for the US Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America, we would not deny entry to any member of Congress into Israel.”
Knowing Ron Dermer, it is inconceivable he would have done this without checking with Netanyahu — and this was the right posture. Israel is a democracy, the only one in the Middle East. Like all countries it has its warts, but it is an amazing country and anyone going to it would see that — and unlike the other countries in the region, it is open, it is transparent, it has nothing to hide.
Yes, Omar and Tlaib had an agenda that was one-sided and designed to make Israel look exclusively like the victimizer and Palestinians look like helpless victims. But their agenda was so blatant as to expose their fundamental bias; few would have taken that seriously. Now, of course, thanks to the decision to bar them, they are victims, and receiving far greater attention than they deserve or would have had.
Israel comes off looking like it is just another Middle Eastern country — or like Russia or China, which bar those who might expose their authoritarianism. So Israel loses.
But who gains aside from Omar and Tlaib? Donald Trump and his desire to paint Democrats with the brush of Omar and Tlaib. His tweet that it was a sign of “weakness” for Israel to allow them in was enough for Netanyahu to cave; that unfortunately was a sign of weakness and not strength.
Israel is America’s ally in the Middle East — and Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Donald Trump should not be allowed to undermine its bipartisan support.
Dennis Ross is counselor and the William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served as special assistant to President Obama, as Special Middle East Coordinator under President Clinton, and as director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in the first Bush administration. He is the author, with David Makovsky, of the forthcoming book “Be Strong and of Good Courage,” which will be released September 3. Follow him on Twitter @AmbDennisRoss.
Stuart Eizenstat is senior counsel at Covington & Burling LLP and heads their international practice; this is written in his personal capacity. He’s the former domestic policy advisor to President Jimmy Carter, former U.S. ambassador to the EU and former Deputy Treasury Secretary under President Bill Clinton. He’s the author of “President Carter: The White House Years.” Follow him on Twitter @StuartEizenstat.
They co-chair the Jewish People Policy Institute, a non-profit policy planning think tank based in Jerusalem.
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