A giant Likud Party banner in Tel Aviv shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu shaking hands with President Trump. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)
By Gershom Gorenberg August 19
“Are we a vassal state of yours? Are we a banana republic?” Israeli Prime
Minister Menachem Begin whipped U.S. Ambassador Samuel W. Lewis with
rhetorical questions. It was December 1981. The Israeli leader was furious
about a series of punitive measures against Israel by President Ronald
Reagan, the latest in response to Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights.
Even more, Begin was incensed by what he perceived as Reagan’s attitude that
Israel had to follow instructions from Washington. The prime minister called
in the ambassador and read out a prepared statement. “We have enough
strength,” Begin declared, “to defend our independence and to defend our
Fast forward nearly 38 years. Israel gets a request from two Democratic
members of Congress — one of them Palestinian American, both known for
criticism of Israeli policy — to visit the occupied West Bank. As Muslims,
both Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) are regular
targets of President Trump’s politics of bigotry. Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu and his advisers, however, decided that Israel must independently
manage its relations with the U.S. Congress and approve the visit.
Then Trump tweets, “It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar
and Rep. Tlaib to visit.” Within hours, the Israeli government blocks the
visit. Netanyahu issues a statement justifying the reversal. His foreign
minister follows up with the clumsy, unconvincing claim that Ron Dermer,
Israel’s ambassador to the United States and one of Netanyahu’s closest
confidants, hadn’t consulted the prime minister when he announced that the
visit could go ahead.
Surely, no one could think that this makes Netanyahu or Israel look weak.
To understand Begin’s fury and Netanyahu’s servility, some context is
MEXICALI, MEXICO - NOVEMBER 28: A Honduran migrant walks along the beach
after talking through various strategies for crossing the border illegally
with a friend on November 28, 2018 in Tijuana, Mexico. The border fence, on
the right, ends in the ocean, so they discussed whether the best strategy
would be to swim around, climb over, or try to fit through the border fence.
(Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
Besides the specific policy disputes, there were deeper historical and
emotional reasons for Begin’s blowup. Like other oppressed peoples, Jews had
outsize expectations of self-determination. Israel’s establishment did give
the Jews who lived in the new state more political agency than they’d had
before. But a country can’t do whatever it wants, especially a small country
with few resources and hostile neighbors. Like other new nations, Israel
needed alliances with powerful patrons. Patron-client relationships are
Making matters worse, the Israeli right had a particularly intense
investment in national honor, suffused with elements of machismo. Reagan
reminded Begin just how limited independence was, and it hurt.
One way for a weaker country to increase its freedom of action is to play
potential patrons off against each other. Israel had a brief early flirt
with the Soviet Union, then a longer alliance with France. But by the end of
the Six-Day War in 1967, its only available superpower patron was the United
States. To compensate, Israeli governments followed a three-part strategy:
They cultivated wide public sympathy in the United States; they wooed both
Democrats and Republicans; and they developed strong ties with Congress as a
counterweight to the White House.
The Israeli policy choices that turned a temporary occupation into permanent
rule over Palestinians contradicted this strategy, especially the bipartisan
part. But it has taken a surprisingly long time for the Democrats to notice
that the occupation doesn’t jibe with their principles.
Netanyahu, however, has worked assiduously to undo the old strategy for
relations with Washington. From his first term as prime minister, he focused
on building ties with Republicans and, particularly, conservative
evangelicals. He could count on them to back permanent Israeli rule of the
In 2012, Netanyahu drew criticism for his near-endorsement of Mitt Romney in
the U.S. election. His confrontations with President Barack Obama, climaxing
in his speech to Congress against the Iran nuclear deal, further underlined
his GOP-only approach.
Then came Trump. Yet Netanyahu seemed to be the Trump-whisperer. He had it
figured: Compliment Trump, ignore the stink of anti-Semitism around him, and
the president would do whatever you want — move the embassy to Jerusalem,
recognize annexation of the Golan Heights, erase the two-state solution from
U.S. policy. Who needs Democrats? Who needs Congress?
Even so, when the request from Tlaib and Omar came in, the old approach
temporarily won out. I doubt Netanyahu recognized that barring entry to
boycott advocates would be a gift to the BDS movement, that it undermined
Israel’s claim to be a free society, or that it announced Israel had
something to hide. But he was apparently convinced at first that locking out
the two Democratic representatives would be too great an affront to
Congress, to the Democratic Party and to the American pro-Israel lobbying
groups that regularly bring members of Congress to Israel.
Trump was unhappy. Netanyahu was respecting people whom Trump wanted
disrespected. The messages started coming from Washington, culminating in
Netanyahu then burned the last shreds of Israel’s carefully balanced
strategy for managing relations with the United States: He did what Trump
asked. If Netanyahu has self-awareness, he should see where a foreign policy
based on sycophancy toward a single unbalanced leader, the Emperor Nero of
our day, has led him.
“Are we a vassal state?” I hear Menachem Begin’s ghost asking. Honestly, I
don’t know. Definitely, though, Netanyahu has become the personal vassal of
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