By Jonathan Fink
The United States and United Kingdom may have a “special relationship,” but the relationship between the U.S. and Israel as bilateral allies is just as powerful — that is, unless Netanyahu has his way. His decision to ban Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., from visiting Israel due to their public calls to boycott the country was just the tip of the iceberg and follows a pattern of Netanyahu putting himself first, and the Israeli-American relationship second.
The prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, commonly referred to as “Bibi,” is currently the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history, serving his current term since 2009. He’s been in office during the tenure of two United States presidents, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, and has had plenty of opportunity to make meaningful progress in fostering a strong relationship between our two countries. Instead, he has consistently shown disrespect toward U.S. government officials in order to shore up his right-wing base.
U.S. support for Israel has historically been bipartisan, with members of Congress and U.S. presidents united on providing Israel military financial assistance (approximately $3 billion annually or $140 billion since World War II) to the Jewish state. In return, the Israeli administration should, at the very least, respect the offices and the esteemed decision makers who provide that funding. After all, this unwavering, bipartisan commitment to Israel isn’t for naught — it’s to forge and strengthen our mutual connection.
In March of 2015, Netanyahu famously circumvented Obama when he came to the U.S. and addressed both chambers of Congress without Obama’s prior knowledge. Many in the Democratic Party took offense, and saw the action as Bibi undermining and disrespecting the U.S. president.
The already rocky relationship got further complicated when Netanyahu worked against what would be one of Obama’s signature accomplishments, the Iran nuclear deal. This deal, announced in June 2015, was heavily negotiated by major nations such as China, the U.S., the United Kingdom, Russia, France and Germany.
Making the deal happen was no small feat, and while it wasn’t without its faults, Netanyahu was one of its most vocal critics, calling it “a mistake of historic proportions” and actively lobbying against it. Netanyahu’s rejection of the historic deal gave left-leaning Democrats in the U.S. the impression, once again, that Netanyahu was working against our domestic interests and straining the Israeli-American relationship.
Now, we have the most recent instance of Netanyahu compromising our connection, as he reversed an earlier decision and decided not to allow Reps. Omar and Tlaib into Israel. Though there was the shaky justification of the law banning pro-BDS supporters from entering the country, Netanyahu should have taken the opportunity to allow these two representatives to see the beauty and wonder that Israel offers for themselves.
All of Netanyahu’s excuses about why these two representatives were banned from visiting barely hold up, since Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer said, just a month ago, that Israel would allow Tlaib and Omar in “out of respect for the U.S. Congress.” Dermer held the correct, respectful attitude initially — a position that might have mended some of the bonds Netanyahu has broken over the years. Alas, Bibi has an election coming up, and in an apparent nod to the demands of his right-wing base, he capitulated to the demands of President Trump instead, reversing his decision almost immediately after Trump tweeted his displeasure.
Netanyahu is playing a short-term game; putting cracks in the U.S.-Israel relationship leaves his support, especially in the Democratic Party, on shakier ground. There are those who say that the U.S.-Israel relationship is stronger than ever. However, getting short-term political gain from working with Republicans at the huge expense of the Democrats does not indicate a healthy and strong relationship — instead, it shows a weak one. A strong relationship with only half of a government is not only unsustainable, but against the democratic ideals that Israel claims to stand for.
Should he continue to disrespect congresspeople and administrative officials in the Democratic party, he may find himself in the precarious position of having support from only one party: the Republicans. With a divided Senate and House, this could mean he will not have enough votes in the future to advance his interests. In the worst case scenario, he would be unable to secure the financial and military support Israel has come to depend on.
This is not just a problem for Bibi; a rejection of Israel’s interests would hurt American interests as well. Those who think the strong U.S.-Israel relationship doesn’t matter are short-sighted and need to look at the bigger picture. The support that the U.S. provides Israel is an investment in the region as a whole, advancing our strategic interests and benefitting us technologically and militarily.
Our relationship is too strong, too special and too important for both countries to risk. Netanyahu can and must do better than this or he could damage our relationship forever — and he’ll be largely to blame.
Jonathan Fink is a member of Philadelphia’s young professional Jewish community.