If you had any hope that support for Israel would once again transcend political parties, President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have made it much less likely, and for cynical, self-serving reasons.
It is tempting to see Trump’s manipulative hand all over Israel’s decision this week to deny entry to two Muslim Democratic members of Congress, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. After all, Netanyahu’s government had signaled that it would grant visas to Omar and Tlaib, even though they are fierce critics of Israel and support a boycott of the Jewish state.
Then Trump unleashed a typically nasty and hyperbolic tweet contending that since Omar and Tlaib “hate Israel & all Jewish people,” it would “show great weakness” if they were allowed to visit Palestinians on the West Bank on a tour that was supposed to begin on Sunday. Within hours, the Israeli government, invoking a 2017 law allowing it to ban supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement from entering the country, canceled the visit.
Not one to stop once he gets going, especially when it comes to demonizing women of color in hopes of scoring political points, Trump welcomed the decision and took to Twitter again: “Representatives Omar and Tlaib are the face of the Democrat Party, and they HATE Israel!”
Most Democrats were full of righteous indignation. Many Republicans, predictably, were silent.
But while Trump has reveled in this painful partisan split, he didn’t invent it. The origins preceded his presidency; his aggressive behavior and policy decisions have accelerated a trend that had its roots in the last administration and is driven by demography and history as much as by crude electoral calculation.
Think back to the spring of 2015. President Barack Obama was building political support at home and abroad for an agreement to curtail Iran’s nuclear weapons. Netanyahu vociferously opposed the deal, and in cahoots with Republican leadership, went around the White House to engineer an invitation to speak to a joint session of Congress.
The prime minister pulled out all the stops — the Nobel laureate and conscience of the Jewish people, Elie Wiesel, was in the audience — and received rapturous applause. From those in the hall, that is. Nearly 60 Democrats skipped the speech (and that included four who currently are running for President) and many more eventually voted in favor of the deal, ensuring its passage. But the die was cast.
Those who believed that Iran posed an existential threat to Israel and viewed the deal as a dangerous appeasement were largely, though not exclusively, Republican. Many Democrats, on the other hand, were furious that an Israeli leader defied a popular president of their own party who was seeking to make history. The partisan split became more obvious the following year, when Republicans — pushed by Trump, their nominee — upended decades of U.S. foreign policy and dropped support for a two-state solution, including an independent Palestinian state, from their party platform.
Then in the 2018 midterms, Democrats elected new representatives to Congress, including Omar and Tlaib, who were willing to openly criticize Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands and its treatment of Arab citizens. Omar had to apologize for saying that lawmakers’ support for Israel was based on money.
Tlaib, who has family on the West Bank, has said that Israel’s policies are dehumanizing. (Republicans also twisted her words when she said she had a “calming feeling” when she thought about how the Palestinians gave up their land to try to create a safe haven for Jews after the Holocaust.) While staying away from incendiary language, some of the leading Democratic candidates for president have also questioned the U.S. government’s historically generous support of Israel.
These political differences are driven by deeper demographic changes. The occupation has lasted for more than half a century, so it’s understandable that younger Americans view Israel as a mighty aggressor rather than a vulnerable nation surrounded by enemies. Not only do public opinion polls show a widening partisan divide on views of the Israeli government — with Democrats far more critical than Republicans — but there are generational shifts, too. A Pew Research Center poll earlier this year found that only 27% of Americans under 30 have a favorable view of the Netanyahu government. For those 65 and older, it’s a clear majority, 57%. By contrast, younger voters in Israel are far more likely than their elders to favor the current government.
Netanyahu may be a polarizing figure, but he’s all they know: he has been in office and dominated the political and ideological landscape since 2009. But the once-invincible prime minister could not form a government after the last election, so he is forced to face the voters again on September 17. From a domestic perspective, Netanyahu probably had no choice but to obey Trump’s demand to keep out the two Congresswomen. He surely can’t risk a Twitter barrage from the White House in the next four weeks.
The tragedy of this episode is that neither of these two leaders is thinking even a day beyond their next election. Rather than constructively addressing the deeper trends tearing at the American-Israeli relationship, they are creating political divisions that are quickly becoming tribal enmities, discarding diplomatic norms and igniting racial and religious tensions. It is difficult to see this ending well, for either nation.