Netanyahu’s Mexican tweet

Here’s hoping the government of Israel holds its tweets and rethinks its strategy.

January 29, 2017 21:16
4 minute read.
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during question time at the Knesset yesterday

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during question time at the Knesset yesterday. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

What was Netanyahu thinking when he tweeted himself in the foot on Shabbat? There are three obvious reasons to question the wisdom of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to offer his support for US President Donald Trump’s plan to build a wall on the Mexican border at that particular moment: meddling, timing and groveling.

First, it is not generally considered a bright idea for an Israeli prime minister to wade into major policy disputes in the US, let those that have sown major international tensions. Second, it seems especially unwise to get involved in an immigration-related issue on the very day when American Jews (not to mention tens of millions of Americans generally, and even a few Republicans in Congress) are up in arms over President Trump’s discriminatory, and constitutionally questionable, 90-day ban on entry to the US from seven Muslim-majority countries (including permanent US residents). Finally, it is never recommended for a would-be statesman to prostrate himself like a fawning sycophant before his political patron.

But beyond these obvious considerations, there are two deeper reasons to worry about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision and, more generally, the strategy he seems to be adopting in response to the new regime in Washington.

The first is that Netanyahu seems to be signaling his willingness to join with other political opportunists in abetting the Trump administration’s demagoguery and Orwellian promotion of “alternative facts.”

After all, undocumented migration from Mexico to the US has been essentially zero or even negative over the course of the Obama administration. Moreover, enforcement efforts against illegal immigration – measured by the Border Patrol budget, as well as related indicators – increased almost sevenfold from 1985 to 2008, and remained steady through the Obama years. Oh yeah, there is also no evidence that Mexican immigrants are more likely to “bad hombres”.

Note also that the common intuition that higher walls limit illegal immigration is wrong in the case of the Mexican border, as demonstrated by Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey and coauthors Karen Pren and Jorge Durand in the March 2016 of the American Journal of Sociology. How can this be? Well historically, the vast majority of migrants from Mexico went back and forth from their villages in Mexico to jobs in the United States. But when it became tougher to cross the border in the 1980s, this led many Mexicans to stay in the US for fear that they would have a hard time returning. Tougher enforcement was actually responsible for the surge in illegal immigrants.

Why are these facts not well known? Because the Trump campaign and administration’s only interest in inconvenient facts is to deny them.

And why might so many Americans be receptive to a demagogue’s fear-mongering about a minority group? Um – do Jews need an explanation why a group can be painted as a threat when it is not? The real question is why some Jews might not be wise to this familiar strategy.

The upshot is that Netanyahu’s tweet, and his strategy more generally, threaten to link Israel’s fate to that of a demagogue whose willful disregard for the truth and willingness to victimize a minority should send chills through any Jewish leader rather than elicit cheers.

But let us set aside the moral bankruptcy of this strategy and consider a second problem with it: even as a matter of cold political calculus, it is incredibly short-sighted.

One word summarizes why: Transylvania.

Did you ever wonder why Transylvania is part of Romania even though the Hungarians claim it as theirs? Indeed, even Hungarian Jews think of Transylvania as part of Hungary. So why is it in Romania? The answer is simple: the Hungarians bet wrong.

They allied themselves with the Nazis in return for being rewarded Transylvania. But thankfully, the Nazis lost. And the Hungarians have a much smaller country as a result.

The implication is straightforward: it might be in Israel’s short-term interest to curry favor with the Trump administration. But it is myopic to say the least. Most Americans, and much of the world, regard President Trump as a grave threat to American democracy and to core values we hold dear. Since opponents of Trump are a majority and America is a democracy where power has routinely rotated between the two major parties, there is good reason to think the Democrats will be in power within a few years. Moreover, since Trump and his coterie are notoriously corrupt and have little organizational skill or knowledge of how to craft policy that actually meets Americans’ needs, there is good reason to expect that many other Americans will eventually come to their senses as well.

And when they do, the opportunists today will pay the political price. What will defenders of Israel be able to say when Israel is accused of having cynically supported Trump? That Israel was just looking out for its skin? That it couldn’t be bothered to double-check the obvious lies? That it was blinded by the prospect of being able to realize its nationalist ambitions? None of those answers will likely prevent Israel from meeting the fate of Hungary or worse.

Here’s hoping the government of Israel holds its tweets and rethinks its strategy. It is both the right and the smart thing to do.

The author is the Alvin J. Siteman Professor of Entrepreneurship and Strategy at the MIT Sloan School of Management, where he is deputy dean. He is also president of the Young Israel of Brookline in Brookline, Mass. His opinions are personal views and do not represent either institution. He tweets at @ewzucker.

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