Democrats have long criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for acting like a Republican partisan. Now they have proof.
The Netanyahu government’s decision to block two Democratic members of Congress from entering the country at President Donald Trump’s urging underscored the long and deep ties between the Likud leader and the GOP that began more than a decade ago.
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It’s a politically reciprocal relationship that’s only expected to intensify in the coming months. Trump is seeking to drive a wedge between Jewish Democrats and the rest of the party over Israel policy in advance of his re-election. Netanyahu, who has his own September 17 legislative elections to contend with, has wholeheartedly embraced the American president.
“There’s not much daylight between Netanyahu and Republicans, at least Republican elected leaders,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Brooks’ counterpart, Jeremy Ben-Ami of the Democratically aligned group J-Street, agreed but in harsher terms.
“Netanyahu is essentially an Israeli Republican,” said Ben-Ami, who believes the political relationship is bad for U.S.-Israel policy, while Brooks believes the opposite.
Both Netanyahu and Trump have used Islamophobic rhetoric in political campaigns, which made inviting targets of Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar — both fierce critics of Israel and the first Muslim women ever to serve in the U.S. House. Omar’s use of anti-Semitic rhetoric has made her a controversial figure as well, driving a wedge between Democrats that Trump has highlighted in an effort to both peel away Jewish support and fire up his conservative white evangelical base, particularly in swing-state Florida.
“Representatives Omar and Tlaib are the face of the Democrat Party, and they HATE Israel!” Trump wrote Thursday on Twitter after the two Democrats were barred by Netanyahu’s government from entering Israel, in part due to their support of the “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions,” or BDS movement.
The close relationship between Trump and Netanyahu has intensified ever since Trump became the first U.S. president to honor a pledge made by nearly every other presidential nominee to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Netanyahu, in turn, personally dedicated the groundbreaking for a new community called “Trump Heights” in the disputed territory of the Golan Heights.
But Netanyahu’s close working relationship with Republicans precedes Trump. Netanyahu’s top advisor, Miami Beach-born Ron Dermer — who has been referred to as “Bibi’s Brain” — was known as a U.S. Republican operative before his full-time involvement in Israeli politics.
In 2012, Dermer was involved in arranging a visit to Israel by Mitt Romney, leading President Obama’s campaign to accuse Netanyahu of siding with the GOP nominee. When pressed, however, Netanyahu distanced himself from overtly supporting Romney. And Netanyahu supporters accused Obama of backing a Netanyahu opponent in 2009.
While Obama was president, his administration denied a U.S. entry visa in 2012 to a right-wing member of the Knesset, Michael Ben Ari, for allegedly having ties to a terrorist group.
The relationship between Netanyahu and Democrats — specifically Obama — continued to deteriorate, culminating in Netanyahu’s decision to accept a 2015 invitation from GOP leaders to criticize the president’s nuclear deal with Iran before a joint session of Congress. Trump subsequently scrapped the deal.
The speech by Netanyahu marked a turning point in perceptions of Netanyahu from the U.S. Jewish community, according to J-Street pollster Jim Gerstein, who said his surveys showed prime minister began steadily losing support after 2015. Another J-Street survey of Democratic primary voters in May showed that they favored Israel by a net of 25 percentage points but disfavored Netanyahu by 27 points.
“These are sophisticated voters who follow the news, support Israel and oppose the prime minister,” Gerstein said. “They distinguish between their support for Israel and their opposition to Netanyahu. Netanyahu has demonstrated his obedience to Trump and clearly shares a lot in common with him.”
There’s also a partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats over perceptions of Israel and Palestinians, according to a January survey from Pew. That dynamic is playing out on the campaign trail, where the Democratic presidential candidates were pressured to skip an American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference earlier this year due to its support of Netanyahu.
In a rare move, AIPAC on Thursday mildly criticized Netanyahu’s decision.
The first major Democratic presidential candidate to criticize Netanyahu was Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is Jewish. The progressive group Justice Democrats, which endorsed Sanders, said in a written statement Thursday that Netanyahu’s decision was “a watershed moment on how Democrats will engage with Israel’s increasing move toward the far-right under Netanyahu. Public opinion has increasingly moved against the Israeli government within the Democratic Party over the past few years.”
But while polls and election data show Jewish voters still overwhelmingly support Democratic positions and candidates, conservative Jewish activists believe they’re seeing a change for the better.
“Having a close working relationship with the president of the United States — the most powerful man in the world — is a very, very good thing,” said Brooke Goldstein, founder and executive director of The Lawfare Project, a conservative group that advocates for Jewish civil rights.
Goldstein said Democrats split away from Netanyahu and the Israeli government more than Netanyahu moved Israel more toward Republicans in the United States.
“It’s not, ‘why are the Republicans so close?’ The converse is the right question: why are the Democrats so far?” she said. “Israel was always a non-partisan issue.”