The most important thing to know about the Israeli government’s decision to ban two Democratic House members, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, from entering Israel and its occupied Palestinian territories is that it is not about them. That is why it doesn’t matter that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu subsequently reversed himself and agreed to let Tlaib in on “humanitarian” grounds; it wouldn’t even matter if he reversed himself on Omar. Again, it is not about them. It is about sticking it to the Democrats and lending a friendly hand to a Republican president it wants to see reelected. Nor is this the first time that Israel has blatantly demonstrated its clear preference for right-wing Republicans over Democrats.
In fact, as unprecedented (and even bizarre) as this particular action is, it pales in comparison to actions Israel took during the Obama administration. This is worth noting, as it demonstrates that the latest move is not merely an effort to curry favor with an incumbent president but is part of a longer-term policy of supporting Republicans even when the Democrats are in power.
No, far more egregious was the Israeli government’s effort (ultimately successful) to destroy Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. Although successive Israeli governments had declared that preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb was their top foreign policy goal, the Netanyahu government opposed the American effort to do just that with all the power it could command. Why? Because Israel is in fact less concerned about stopping Iran from getting nukes than it is about toppling the Iranian regime, which it believes can only be achieved through war, a course it has repeatedly pushed on Washington. From the Israeli point of view, Iran will always pose an “existential” threat to Israel until it installs a regime, like the shah’s, that will defer to it.
Working through AIPAC, Israel quickly lined up the Republican caucuses in the House and Senate to oppose the deal. Not only that, the Israelis and their friends tried to enlist the Iranian hard-liners in their cause! Senator Tom Cotton and 46 of his GOP colleagues actually wrote to the Iranian government warning it not to sign a deal with Obama because they, the Republicans, would renege on the deal’s terms the minute they had the opportunity. (That is, of course, what happened.) The Cotton letter, engineered by a foreign government and its advocates in Washington, may or may not have been illegal. But it was certainly unprecedented, as if Republicans who opposed John F. Kennedy’s nuclear test ban treaty in the early 1960s had written to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and told him not to sign it because they would repudiate the treaty when they came to power. Imagine!
And then there was Netanyahu’s speech opposing the Iran deal, which he delivered to a joint session of Congress. The speech was a lurid declaration of war against Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement, which Netanyahu delivered to a Congress that behaved as if it was at an AIPAC conference, jumping to its feet dozens of times to cheer the Israeli prime minister. The congressional Republican leadership did not even inform the Obama administration about the speech until after it had worked out the time, place, and logistics with the Israeli embassy.
It doesn’t get worse than that.
Netanyahu’s own little Muslim ban should only trouble those who had illusions about Trump or Netanyahu. Or Israel, for that matter. Both Trump and Netanyahu have given more than ample evidence of their racism and Islamophobia—Trump with his poisonous tweets and his Muslim ban, and Netanyahu with both his words and the missiles he launches against the people of Gaza whenever he thinks they are getting out of line. We know who these two are and the forces they represent. No surprises there.
Along those same lines, those of us who believe that America’s one-sided support for Israel in every and all situations (including the killing of thousands of civilians in Gaza) is bad for the United States, catastrophic for the Palestinians, and ultimately suicidal for Israel should take some cheer out of Trump and Netanyahu’s latest folly, as ugly as it is. And that is because it weakens the forces that promote and sustain the deadly “pro-Israel” status quo.
Democrats across the board have denounced Netanyahu’s ban and, of course, Trump’s truly unprecedented call on a foreign government to ban US members of Congress. And not just the presidential candidates who, led by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, denounced the ban in strong terms. Even House enforcers of orthodoxy on Israel, led by majority leader Steny Hoyer and Foreign Affairs Committee chair Eliot Engel, opposed Trump’s move. Suddenly, those who can’t find their voices when Israel is killing kids in Gaza are all over the media criticizing Netanyahu. Even AIPAC put out a mild tweet criticizing the ban, one no doubt worked out with the embassy of Israel (like everything it does).
No, the “pro-Israel” (to use their term) camp is unhappy. They understand that both Democrats and Jews have been losing interest in Israel and showing more sympathy for Palestinians in recent years. Between the monstrous occupation of the West Bank and Gaza (yes, Gaza is still under occupation), the Israeli electorate’s shift to the right, the increasing domination of Israeli life by Orthodox Jews who don’t even consider most American Jews to be truly Jewish, the bloom is off the Israeli rose.
And now Netanyahu has made clear that the State of Israel seems to be part of Donald Trump’s far-flung empire, a place where streets and town squares are named in honor of a president whom American Jews despise.
This is nothing for opponents of unconditional US support for Israel to be upset about. Without that unconditional support, neither the occupation nor Israel’s undemocratic and racist system at home can be sustained. It is now losing the support of America’s largest political party and of those American Jews (an average of nearly 75 percent in recent elections) who identify with it.
Let the Likudniks, the lobby, the bought members of Congress, and the neocons cry. For those of us who want to see Israelis and Palestinians living in peace, in one country or two, with full security and sovereignty for both, Netanyahu’s stupid move is good news. It’s time someone tore the mask off the Israeli government and its fellow travelers in Washington. Perhaps, after the 2020 elections, the United States will serve as an honest broker between Israelis and Palestinians. Perhaps it will recognize that Palestinians deserve the same rights as Israelis in the land both peoples call home. Perhaps it will condition US aid to Israel on its negotiating an end to the 52-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. After all, there’s a first time for everything.