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By Barring Two Congresswomen, Trump and Netanyahu Set a Trap for Democrats

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For those unable to decide whether Donald Trump acts as a shrewd political tactician or with mere crude improvisation, the tweet-dare that he sent to Benjamin Netanyahu last Thursday will not settle the matter. It was perhaps nothing more than base animus aimed at Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, who are not only the House’s first Muslim women but who embody the educated, cosmopolitan, minority, female, insurgent America that Trump cannot abide. But, in depicting them as anti-Semites (“They hate Israel & all Jewish people,” he tweeted), and thus prompting the Netanyahu government to bar their entry to Israel—and causing virtually the entire Democratic caucus to rally to their defense—Trump seems to have launched a plot against America that even Philip Roth could not conceive.

First, he evokes an Israel that is a model for the kind of tough, traditional, populist, wall-building nation that he thinks America should notionally aspire to; he coddles the right-wing Netanyahu-led forces that are committed to this hard nationalism, and are, at best, cavalier about minority rights and democratic norms; and, at rallies, he hammers away at the alleged anti-Semitism of prominent blacks, Hispanics, Muslims, and others, and suggests that anti-Semites are the true face of the Democratic Party. The hope, it seems, is to spur Jewish voters and contributors—and, more, suburban voters skeptical of radicals, and evangelicals who revere the Children of Israel—to abandon, or further scorn, the Democratic Party in favor of Trump’s G.O.P.

It would be comforting to think that this plot will fail, but so far, deliberately or inadvertently, major characters are playing to form. Netanyahu has continued to pay lip service to congressional bipartisanship, but he has gravitated openly toward the Republican Party, at least since the beginning of the Obama Administration. Rather than emphasizing an Israeli and American partnership based on shared democratic values—and, correspondingly, dealing seriously with legitimate Palestinian demands for sovereign territory and civil rights—Netanyahu has stressed Israeli military muscle in a “neighborhood” polarized by Islamist radicalism and Iran. At the same time, he denies that Israeli policy has ever exacerbated these dangers. For Netanyahu, it is axiomatic that the strong survive, that free enterprise makes you rich enough to be strong, and that Jewish orthodoxy engenders social cohesion and military solidarity. In this view of the world, there is little room for Arabs—or any non-Jews.

This militant, vigilant Israel resonates with Trumpian Republicans. For them, being pro-Israel internationally is akin to supporting unlimited gun rights domestically––a component of what they take to be their defense of civilizational liberty. And Netanyahu reciprocates the love. He is obviously pitching more to the evangelical chorus than to Zabar’s shoppers on the Upper West Side. “You stand with us because you stand with yourselves,” he said at Christians United for Israel’s annual conference, in Washington, in 2017, “because we represent that common heritage of freedom that goes back thousands of years.”

Netanyahu plays his part, finally, because, like Trump, he has his eye on reëlection. Having failed to form a coalition government in May, he will face the voters again on September 17th. The left’s decline and the rise of religious nationalism both play to his advantage. But many voters have grown weary of Netanyahu, who has been in office longer than any other Israeli Prime Minister. A cloud of corruption and the prospect of criminal trials hang over his head. If he again wins a slender victory, he will need to find coalition partners on the right who are willing to pass legislation that will disempower the Supreme Court and keep him out of prison. The price he seems willing to pay is support for legislation from the settler parties that would annex even more land in the West Bank. Netanyahu hopes that by showing Israelis that he has an ultra-special relationship with Trump they will think of him, yet again, as the indispensable man. To this end, he is counting on Trump giving him a more or less free hand with annexation. Indeed, Trump’s Ambassador to Israel has broadly hinted that the United States will pose no opposition to such a move.

Some say that Trump’s tweet “bullied” Netanyahu into acting against the congresswomen, against his own better judgment. It is true that Ron Dermer, Netanyahu’s Ambassador to Washington, had initially announced that Israel would not deny entry to any member of Congress. Then Trump urged Netanyahu not to show “great weakness.” But Dermer and Netanyahu were not disingenuous in saying that Israel had not capitulated to Trump so much as enforced its own laws. Indeed, in 2017, Netanyahu’s government passed legislation barring anyone supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (B.D.S.) movement, which the congresswomen, with qualifications, do. Since at least 2010, when Noam Chomsky was denied entry to Israel, Netanyahu’s governments have been selectively barring people they didn’t like from hanging around the West Bank. It seems truer to say that Netanyahu would have been willing to make a grudging show of tolerance toward the two congresswomen, if only as a sop to AIPAC-supporting Democrats. (A bipartisan group of seventy-two members of Congress visited Israel earlier this month.) But he was not prepared to do so in opposition to Trump. The codependency between them is ever more naked. Each offers the other a measure of legitimacy in his respective base. This time, Trump held the leash; he gave a little tug, via Twitter, and Netanyahu heeled.

Alas, Tlaib and Omar are playing their roles, as well––not simply because of loose talk (“all about the Benjamins”) but, more substantively, because of their vague endorsements of B.D.S., which can be effectively exploited by Trump. Both now associate with the movement, though each tried to fudge this somewhat during their respective campaigns. B.D.S. calls for, among other things, a wholesale boycott of “Israel’s apartheid regime, complicit Israeli sporting, cultural and academic institutions,” and “all Israeli and international companies engaged in violations of Palestinian human rights.” Thomas Friedman, writing in the Times, laments especially that Omar, who represents the district in Minnesota where he grew up, has not been building bridges between its Muslims and Jews. The B.D.S. movement, whose most prominent leader is the Qatar-born Palestinian engineer Omar Barghouti—who lives in the Israeli-Arab town of Acre, was educated at Columbia, and earned a graduate degree in philosophy from Tel Aviv University—was founded, in 2005, in Ramallah. It has never been clear whether the external pressure that the leaders of the movement are trying to mobilize is aimed at ending the occupation or at ending the state of Israel itself.

The attractions of B.D.S. are understandable. The occupation has endured for more than fifty years, and has grown ever more controlling, cruel, and intractable. The spread of Jewish settlements is unabated. For the past twenty years—which means for anyone thirty or younger—it has been hard to imagine Israel dissociated from Ariel Sharon’s swagger or Benjamin Netanyahu’s smirk. It is still harder, given the denial of Palestinian national and civil rights, and the growth of Israeli theocracy, for progressive young Americans to offer a rejoinder to the original Palestinian narrative: that Israel is inherently a racist, colonial project aimed at disenfranchising the Palestinian people; that Palestinian refugees should be able to return to their homes, and Israel as a distinct national entity should be dismantled in favor of a “secular” state; that “Europe” victimized Palestinians by making Jews desperate for a haven and giving them the land—a simplification that Tlaib echoed, albeit in a statement showing a certain compassion.

Netanyahu’s government purported to reverse its decision on Tlaib’s case, announcing that she would be allowed to visit her grandmother, who is in her nineties, in Beit Ur al-Fauqa, a small West Bank town west of Ramallah, on “humanitarian grounds”—though only after the Interior Minister exacted a written pledge from Tlaib “to respect any restrictions” and “not to promote boycotts against Israel during [her] visit.” This pledge only added a measure of humiliation to the original offense. On Friday, Tlaib said that she could not, upon reflection, repudiate her right to speak out, and cancelled the trip. “I’ve experienced the same racist treatment that many Palestinian-Americans endure when encountering the Israeli government,” she said in a statement. Trump then tweeted, “The only real winner here is Tlaib’s grandmother. She doesn’t have to see her now!”

In this context, and to the Democrats’ chagrin, American progressives have been drawn into a simple contest about Israel’s reputation, which can elide its realities. Whether on campuses or in Congress, the existence of the Israeli state increasingly looks to progressives, above all, like a civil-rights violation on the world stage—like apartheid-era South Africa, or the Jim Crow South. B.D.S., for its part, seems to them a reasonable, nonviolent way to confront it. All Israelis, so the argument goes, are implicated in the travesty, which the United States has ingenuously nursed along because of a growing Israel lobby that cynically exploits the memory and legacy of the Holocaust. The time is long past, B.D.S. advocates say, to make all Israelis hurt until they get the message. You boycott Israeli institutions and agitate for disinvestment from Israeli businesses, or from global companies that partner with them; you agitate to sanction Israeli government officials, and threaten to take them to the International Criminal Court. “Led by communities of color, progressive Jewish groups, mainline churches, trade unions, academic associations, LGBTQI groups, indigenous justice movements, and university students,” Barghouti wrote recently in The Nation, “many Americans are abandoning the ethically untenable ‘progressive except on Palestine’ stance.”

Barring American members of Congress from Israel is deplorable. What makes the move also counterproductive is that the best defense against B.D.S. is to expose skeptical foreign visitors such as Omar and Tlaib to Israel’s internal divisions, which will seem utterly familiar to them: its comparatively élite, cosmopolitan—and frustrated—Tel Aviv coast up against poor, pietistic Jerusalem and the rest of the country. Time spent examining more Israeli realities might even persuade them that B.D.S. is an unexamined, contradictory bundle, because boycott, divestment, and sanctions are three very different things, hurting very different slices of Israeli society.

One can imagine governments sanctioning Israeli settlement policies, much like George H. W. Bush did, in 1991, when he warned that he would deduct any sum that Israel spent on settlements from American loan guarantees. One can imagine international organizations setting telecommunications standards sanctioning Israelis for hogging bandwidth from Palestinian telecom companies.

But to boycott all Israeli universities, or boycott all Israeli entrepreneurs, to disinvest from all Israeli companies, or global companies that invest directly in Israel—all of these things will cut the ground out from under the very people who remain a crucial constituency for the kind of progressive politics that Omar and Tlaib represent and hope to foster. Indeed, it is the moral equivalent of the European Union boycotting Silicon Valley or Harvard in order to undermine Trump’s America. Boycott the Hebrew University and you boycott scholars trying to bridge the studies of the Holocaust and the Nakba. Boycott Israeli chipmakers and you boycott companies setting up research offices in Palestine. If American progressives have a role, it is not to fantasize about collapsing Israel’s universities and economy but to support Israeli progressives who, like Omar and Tlaib, are trying to reform their country. In both places, it will be a long haul.

Make no mistake: it is an outrage that members of Congress should be barred from visiting Israel for any reason. (And it is equally an outrage for an American President to encourage another nation to bar his political opponents.) Imagine another beneficiary of aid, King Abdullah of Jordan, barring Representatives Adam Schiff and Jerry Nadler for supporting resolutions that, in his view, put his kingdom in jeopardy. But outrage is Trump’s specialty. Democratic leaders had better not underestimate the trap that his rants about Israel and anti-Semitism have put them in. Condemn B.D.S. supporters and you risk appearing indifferent to one of the great human-rights issues inspiring the Party’s next generation. Soft-pedal the perils of B.D.S., or even its logic, and you risk debasing the liberalism that inspired the past generation. What, after all, is the difference in moral attitude between boycotting a country and barring a boycotter from it? Trump may be wrong to think that American Jews, more than seventy per cent of whom voted against him, will overlook the affront that his behavior poses. But Trump will not be here forever, and the trap will outlast him. The Presidential candidate who does not flinch from confronting its complexity will be doing the Democratic Party and a democratic country a service.



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Thanks !

Thanks for sharing this, you are awesome !