By Michael Warren
On August 12th, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government banned two American congresswomen, Rep. Rashida Tlaib and Rep. Ilhan Omar, from entering Israel at the urging of President Trump. Later that week, the Israeli government conditionally allowed Tlaib to enter the country if she promised “not to promote boycotts” while visiting her grandmother on the West Bank. Tlaib ultimately refused the offer under Israel’s terms.
Israel barring American congresspersons from entering its borders is an anomaly. The United States provides $3.1 billion annually in military aid to Israel, a sum appropriated by the House of Representatives. Why would Israel take action against individuals who offer potentially valuable votes in the House?
The answer is that President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu view each other’s endorsement as essential in winning small parts of their electorates, and ultimately, in the success of their reelection campaigns.
President Trump’s electoral strategy has seemed to include making Israel a wedge issue among American Jewish communities. His strategy is two-part: to brand the entire Democratic party as anti-Semitic and anti-Israel, and to receive glowing endorsements from Netanyahu.
Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar were widely accused of anti-Semitic behavior after they put out several tweets about AIPAC, a pro-Israel lobbying group. These tweets caused a media firestorm, and conservative news media and President Trump quickly labeled the entire Democratic party as anti-Semitic.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has courted the Republican party since he was first elected in 2009. Netanyahu supported candidate Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election, in part because President Obama firmly opposed settlements in the West Bank. Supporting Republican candidates is traditional of Netanyahu. Still, Trump has handed Netanyahu more political gifts than any other American President, including moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israel’s dominion over the Golan Heights, and most notably, pulling out of the Iran Deal at Netanyahu’s urging.
Indeed, based on these actions it seems that President Trump is now courting Netanyahu. This is perhaps an appeal to American Jewish communities, an important demographic for the 2020 election particularly in the state of Florida. Perhaps this is an oversimplification of the Jewish-American electorate, or perhaps this strategy will prove successful.
Similarly, Netanyahu’s relationship with Trump is central to his own reelection bid. Trump is popular in Israel, and the Likud party even posted Trump and Netanyahu shaking hands on billboards around the country to publicize their partnership. President Trump has granted Netanyahu notable political gifts, and Netanyahu has an immediate incentive to appeal to Trump for an endorsement or at least a nod to fulfill his radical campaign promise: annexing settlements in the West Bank.
Furthermore, some of the mainstream Democratic presidential candidates have already conditioned their support of Israel. The eight highest polling candidates did not attend the bipartisan AIPAC conference for varying reasons. A Democratic president in 2020 might not be as enthusiastic a supporter of Israel as President Trump, which would mean fewer political spoils for Netanyahu.
The tradeoff for Netanyahu is clear; two freshman house-Democrats, who promote boycotts of Israel, or the President of the United States, who showers him with tangible political gifts. Netanyahu is elected by Israelis, not Americans; he can afford to alienate part of the American public if he remains within Trump’s good graces. These heads of state are shaping global policy to win small parts of their electorate, but it is yet to be seen if the Trump-Netanyahu quid-pro-quo will pay off on election day.