Netanyahu's vs. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar's calculations

Which is exactly what happened last week.

August 18, 2019 13:09
4 minute read.
Netanyahu's vs. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar's calculations

U.S. Reps Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) hold a news conference after Democrats in the U.S. Congress moved to formally condemn President Donald Trump's attacks on the four minority congresswomen on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S.,. (photo credit: ERIN SCOTT/REUTERS)

From the first day US President Donald Trump moved into the Oval Office, every time he did something good for Israel, the questions were asked: “What will he ask in return? What price will Israel have to pay?”

The questions were asked in December 2017, when he declared that the US will recognize Jerusalem and move its embassy there; in May 2018, when he withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal; and most recently in March 2019, when he recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

And they are asked every time a US representative – be it Nikki Haley or Jason Greenblatt – gives a passionate defense of Israel at the UN, or squelches an anti-Israel move in the Security Council.

“Don’t get too excited,” a colleague whispered in my ear as we covered the White House ceremony where Trump announced the new US position on the Golan Heights. “We will have to pay.”

The first assumption is that for Trump, the quintessential businessman, there are no free lunches.

And the second assumption is that price Israel will be asked to pay will be in the form of concessions the president will demand of Jerusalem to enable him to secure what he has called the “ultimate deal” – an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

The first assumption seems sound. The second less so.

Trump – and even more so those in his inner circle such as Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, John Bolton and Jared Kushner – are not of the Barack Obama and John Kerry school of thought that holds that they know what is good for Israel better than the Israeli people do themselves.

Trump’s team, unlike the Kerry-Obama team, is not made of the stuff that will force on Israel security risks and concessions that Israel itself does not think it can make. It’s a different mindset.

Which does not mean that Trump will not exact a price. He will – and last week in the Rashida Tlaib-Ilhan Omar saga, he did, but on a completely different playing field.

Trump is not asking for concessions from Israel; Trump is demanding political support from Netanyahu. Trump will ask for the same bear hug from Netanyahu in the run-up to the US presidential 2020 elections that he himself has extended to the prime minister.

And Netanyahu, because of everything the president has done positively for Israel – plus the political support Trump has given him personally – simply cannot say “no”.

Trump’s political need at the moment is to present the far-left Omar and Tlaib, along with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, as the face of the Democratic Party. The party leadership may oppose their attitudes and dislike their positions, they may be far from the mainstream, but Trump’s goal is to turn them into the Democratic Party. And one way to do that is to force the Democratic Party, and its leaders to rally around them.

Which is exactly what happened last week.

When Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer said on July 19 that Israel would allow the two congresswomen to visit, he was articulating Israel’s policy – it would be a problematic visit, they would use their platform to bash Israel, the country would endure five days of bad press and then the caravan would move on.

But Trump wants Israel to keep the women out because this would – as it has – forced the Democrats to come to their defense. And that serves his political interests.

This, obviously, is not Netanyahu’s first time at bat. He knew exactly what the reactions would be to keeping the congresswomen out. Having met with House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer just a week before, he knew the ban would infuriate the Democratic Party and its leadership. He knew it would be panned in the press. He knew Bernie Sanders would go crazy, and that even mainstream Jewish organizations would be forced to criticize the policy, and that it would make many American Jews feel uncomfortable.

Netanyahu also knew what the price would be in refusing Trump’s request, and what it would mean to both him and Israel to get on an unpredictable president’s bad side.

He weighed the two options, and concluded that the country, and he politically, had more to lose by ignoring the president’s express wishes than they did by acceding to Trump’s request to bar the congresswomen, even if by so doing there will be costs for Israel to bear in the long run.

What is also worth noting is that this is only the beginning.

There are 15 months left to the US elections. In this period, there are likely to be more requests coming from the White House which will be difficult for Netanyahu – or for that matter any other Israeli prime minister – to refuse.

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