(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A huge banner hanging over the side of Likud headquarters in downtown Tel Aviv features pictures of Bibi Netanyahu and Donald Trump, and its message is clear: The American president and the Israeli prime minister are partners. That partnership took a serious hit when Donald Trump forced a very reluctant Netanyahu to cancel the scheduled visit of U.S. Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar to the West Bank.
Trump issued what amounted to an order from headquarters in one blunt tweet: “It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit. They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds…They are a disgrace!”
Within an hour, the Israeli Foreign Ministry announced that the trip was off. Netanyahu let a deputy minister deliver the news: “We won’t allow those who deny our right to exist in this world to enter Israel. In principle this is a very justified decision.”
The action was humiliating. Only a few weeks ago, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, announced that the two legislators would be admitted as a gesture of respect to the U.S. Congress. Dermer is Bibi’s protégé and, some say, his political heir. There is no doubt he was speaking for the prime minister.
Given his druthers, Netanyahu would have stuck to his decision and turned it on Omar and Tlaib. The move was obvious: Offer the visitors an airport reception by a junior minister (to emphasize that they are small potatoes); arrange for them to visit the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem; and invite them to a meeting with everyday Israelis, including victims of Palestinian terrorism.
Of course the two American politicians would have refused such an itinerary. They simply expected to drive through Israel on their way to the fictional state of Palestine. Theirs was a propaganda mission, pure and simple. Making them admit it would have discredited them as serious or fair-minded observers. Instead, Israel handed them an international platform and awarded them the status of enemies of the state.
Netanyahu understood that saying yes to the congresswomen was the smart move. Sure, Trump was on record as opposing the visit, but Bibi took that as bombast. In any case, he has grown accustomed to getting his way in Washington. You could even say that he had come to see the president as a junior partner.
But this time Netanyahu misread the signals. For Trump, demonizing Tlaib and Omar is serious political business. He wanted the trip stopped, and he stopped it himself with the derisive charge that Israel (Netanyahu, that is) was guilty of “great weakness.”
There will be an election in Israel in less than a month. Netanyahu is running as a strong leader with invaluable ties to Washington. Being mocked for weakness (in the face of anti-Semitism, no less!) is bad enough. So is being forced to cave under pressure.
But the alternative would have been worse. That big Likud banner portraying Netanyahu with Trump is the prime minister’s most compelling argument for re-election. Resistance to Trump’s diktat could put Netanyahu one tweet away from losing his job. The two leaders are still on good terms, but, from now on, nobody is likely to mistake Netanyahu for the senior partner.
(Corrects spelling of Ron Dermer in fourth paragraph.)
To contact the author of this story: Zev Chafets at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.
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