President Trump’s position on Israel’s treatment of two Democratic congresswomen may win him points with his base. But his political ploy could ultimately result in greater tension between the United States and its greatest ally in the Middle East.
Israel says it blocked Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) from visiting in part because of their support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which advocates ending global support for Israel because of its policies toward Palestinians and continued construction of settlements in the West Bank.
But the move also came after Trump tweeted that allowing Tlaib and Omar to visit would “show great weakness” by Israel. The president claimed the reason for his position was that the Democratic congresswomen “hate Israel and all Jewish people.”
Israel’s decision was met with backlash, including from some on the right. Many on the left labeled it as a move shaped by Trump’s political animus more than anything else.
(After Tlaib requested that the Israeli government reverse its decision so that she could visit her grandmother, the government granted her permission to visit on conditions that she not be involved in any anti-government protests. Tlaib, an activist before entering Congress, eventually decided not to accept Israel’s terms.)
For Trump, this is about making life more difficult for two of his most vocal critics on the left. He has accused the congresswomen, both of whom are Muslim, of anti-Semitism. Omar in particular has been targeted by the president because of statements she made concerning the role of pro-Israel lobbyists and their interactions with members of Congress, which she later apologized for.
Trump’s tactic with Tlaib and Omar appeals to his base supporters, particularly white evangelicals who oppose any criticism of Israel. But while the president may hope he’s keeping these voters in his court by appearing to stand closely with their views on Israel, he could end up distancing the two nations.
The Washington Post’s Matt Viser and Rachael Bade wrote about how traditionally strong bipartisan support for Israel has been eroding over the past several years, especially among some Democrats because of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies in dealing with the Palestinians and his apparent unapologetic embrace of Trump. Some lawmakers say the prime minister’s desire to cozy up to Trump could affect the aid his country receives. Viser and Bade wrote:
Israel is the greatest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, with the two countries signing a memorandum of understanding in 2016 outlining $38 billion in military aid for the next 10 years. Typically, Congress approves the funds on an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis — but with Democrats such as Sanders calling that into question, the future is uncertain.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, has been one of the most outspoken recent critics of Israel, even suggesting that the country’s government is “dare I say, racist.”
“If Israel doesn’t want members of the United States Congress to visit their country … maybe they can respectfully decline the billions of dollars that we give to Israel,” Sanders said on MSNBC.
Even frequent defenders of Israel have criticized the decision to ban the visit and question the long-term impact on relations between the two nations.
“This matter is a self-inflicted wound by one of America’s closest allies, one of our closest friends, and a vibrant democracy,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), one of the staunchest supporters of Israel in Congress, said in a statement Friday. “President Trump’s urging of such action and its implementation were — and are — unacceptable.”
Trump has banked much of his reelection on being a general in the culture wars that deeply matter to those who support him most. But America is bigger than Trump’s base. And the world certainly is. And in making Israel pick sides in his battles, Trump could be putting the country and its residents at the mercy of a Democratic-led House and an electorate that includes many voters who have already been rethinking the U.S.-Israeli relationship.