What Are Trump and Netanyahu Afraid Of?

Barring Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib shows weakness and intolerance, not strength.

It is difficult to stomach the notion that an American president would put pressure on Israel to deny entry to two members of the United States Congress.

There are not many traditions of decorum that President Trump has not trampled on since entering the White House. But to put at risk, so cynically, America’s special relationship with Israel solely to titillate the bigots in his base, to lean so crassly on a foreign leader to punish his own political adversaries, to demonstrate so foul a lack of respect for the most elemental democratic principles, is new territory even for him.

Though facing a difficult election next month for which he sorely needs the support of his fractured right-wing base, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was said to be leaning toward allowing Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan to travel through Israelout of respect for the U.S. Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America,” as his ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, wisely said last month. But, on Thursday, Mr. Netanyahu cravenly bowed before the pressure from Mr. Trump.

“It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit,” Mr. Trump tweeted on Thursday morning. “They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds.”

Sad, to borrow one of Mr. Trump’s favorite words. How sad that two leaders — each desperate to look tough to his own base — are risking a bipartisan relationship built between these two nations over generations. Only weak leaders would risk so much for a reward so negligible. To what end?
  • To win a few political points against two of the newest members of Congress?
  • To capture a few news cycles?
  • To dial up the outrage machine just one more notch?

Confident leaders would never have risked so much for so little.

Though many American presidents have sought to influence Israeli decisions throughout the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, they usually did so diplomatically — and to advance America’s interests. Mr. Trump, by contrast, leaned on Mr. Netanyahu as he would on one of his own appointees, in broad view, and in direct violation of what the president of the United States should be doing when democratically elected lawmakers are threatened with a blockade by an allied leader.

There can be, and has been, considerable debate over what the two congresswomen, the first two Muslim women elected to Congress and both sharp critics of the Israeli government, have said and done. They have supported the controversial Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (B.D.S.) movement aimed at pressuring Israel into ending its occupation of the West Bank, a movement that some Jews have deemed to be anti-Semitic.

Yet, from the outset, Mr. Trump has pounced on the religion and background of the two congresswomen to fan racial divisions. Ms. Omar and Ms. Tlaib were two of the four congresswomen of color, along with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, who Mr. Trump said should “go back” to the countries they came from, giving rise to chants of “send her back” at a subsequent Trump political rally.

The visit Ms. Omar and Ms. Tlaib were contemplating was not to Israel proper, but to the West Bank, where they were to visit Hebron, Ramallah and Bethlehem, as well as Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem, on a trip co-sponsored by a Palestinian organization, Miftah, that promotes “global awareness and knowledge of Palestinian realities.” A visit was planned to the Al Aqsa Mosque, on what Israelis call the Temple Mount, an especially volatile site in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is little question that their visit would have focused on Palestinian grievances over the Israeli occupation.

All that was clearly troublesome for Mr. Netanyahu, especially the support of the congresswomen for the B.D.S. movement. A relatively recent law allows the Israeli government to deny entry to supporters of the movement; it was this law that the government used to deny entry to the representatives.

In April the United States barred Omar Barghouti, one of the co-founders of the B.D.S. movement, from entering the country when he was scheduled to deliver a series of talks and attend his daughter’s wedding. Other American public figures have been detained by Israeli authorities, ostensibly because of their political views, including the

  • IfNotNow founder, Simone Zimmerman, who was held at the border; a B.D.S. advocate,
  •  Ariel Gold, who was denied entry to the country; and the
  • journalist Peter Beinart, who was held at the airport. Mr. Netanyahu later called Mr. Beinart’s detention a “mistake.”

Yet contrary to Mr. Trump’s tweet, it is blocking entry by two American legislators who are critics of Israel that shows great weakness, especially after Israel hosted visits by delegations of 31 Republican and 41 Democratic lawmakers this month.

It has long been Israel’s mantra that critics of its policies should come see for themselves, and the country is certainly strong enough to handle any criticism from two members of Congress. Mr. Trump has done Israel no favor.

Israel Edges Toward Snap Elections as Netanyahu Struggles to Form Government

Mr. Netanyahu has so far failed to persuade the head of a secular party to abandon a demand for legislation that puts him at odds with religious parties who would be part of the government, leading to the impasse.

.. Mr. Netanyahu’s party recently introduced a bill that would grant him immunity from criminal prosecution as he faces bribery and fraud charges related to three corruption probes. He faces a pretrial hearing in September and fresh elections could delay the legislation, which has received harsh criticism from some of Mr. Netanyahu’s party as well as members of the opposition and Israel’s legal community.

Former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose secular Yisrael Beiteinu party has five seats, backed Mr. Netanyahu for prime minister but has said he would only sit in a coalition that legislates to force the ultraorthodox to serve in the military alongside most Israelis.

.. Mr. Lieberman backs a version of the bill written by the Defense Ministry that sets a minimum number of ultraorthodox men who must be drafted into the military. Other members of Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition, the ultraorthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties, want to see the law watered down.

“The draft law is symptomatic of the radicalness of the ultraorthodox,” Mr. Lieberman said Tuesday morning.

.. “Netanyahu’s insistence to keep his seat at any cost—it is the single barrier to the forming of a national unity government that can truly work for Israel’s citizens, every Israeli citizen,” Blue and White leader Benny Gantz said in a press conference Monday. “If there was one other leader in the Likud, we could form this government.”

Will Trump Be the Sage One?

Only one person can save us from the dangerous belligerent in the White House.

And that person is Donald Trump.

How screwed up is that?

Will the president let himself be pushed into a parlous war by John Bolton, who once buoyed the phony case on W.M.D.s in Iraq? Or will Trump drag back his national security adviser and the other uber hawks from the precipice of their fondest, bloodiest desire — to attack Iran?

Can Cadet Bone Spurs, as Illinois senator and Iraq war vet Tammy Duckworth called Trump, set Tom Cotton straight that winning a war with Iran would not merely entail “two strikes, the first strike and the last strike”? Holy cakewalk.

Once, we counted on Trump’s advisers to pump the brakes on an out-of-control president. Now, we count on the president to pump the brakes on out-of-control advisers.

.. “On one side, you have a president who doesn’t want war, who simply wants to do with Iran what he has done with North Korea, to twist the arm of the Iranians to bring them to a negotiation on his terms,” said Gérard Araud, the recently departed French ambassador. “He thinks they will suffer and at the end, they will grovel in front of his power.”

But in a way, Araud said, the face-off with the Iranians is more “primitive and dangerous” because, besides Bolton, other factions in the Middle East are also “dreaming of going to war.”

“Even if Trump doesn’t personally want war, we are now at the mercy of any incident, because we are at maximum tension on both sides,” said Araud, recalling Candidate Trump’s bellicose Twitter ultimatumsin 2016 when Iran’s Revolutionary Guards held American sailors blindfolded at gunpoint for 15 hours.

Given their sour feelings about W. shattering the Middle East and their anger at Trump shredding the Iran nuclear deal, Europeans are inclined to see the U.S. as trying to provoke Iran into war. This time, the Europeans will not be coming along — and who can blame them?

I’m having an acid flashback to 2002, when an immature, insecure, ill-informed president was bamboozled by his war tutors.

In an echo of the hawks conspiring with Iraqi exiles to concoct a casus belli for Iraq, Bolton told members of an Iranian exile group in Paris in 2017 that the Trump administration should go for regime change in Tehran.

And that’s why, before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran!” Bolton cheerily told the exiles.

When Bolton was the fifth column in the Bush 2 State Department — there to lurk around and report back on flower child Colin Powell — he complained that W.’s Axis of Evil (Iran, Iraq, North Korea) was too limited, adding three more of his own (Cuba, Libya, Syria). Then, last year, Bolton talked about “the Troika of Tyranny” (Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela). His flirtations with military intervention in Venezuela this month irritated Trump.

The 70-year-old with the Yeti mustache is an insatiable interventionist with an abiding faith in unilateralism and pre-emptive war. (The cost of our attenuated post-9/11 wars is now calculated at $5.9 trillion.)

W. and Trump are similar in some ways but also very different. As Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio notes: W. was interested in clarity. Trump wants chaos. W. wanted to trust his domineering advisers. Trump is always imagining betrayal. W. wanted to be a war hero, like his dad. Trump does not want to be trapped in an interminable war that will consume his presidency.

Certainly, the biographer says, Trump enjoys playing up the scary aspects of brown people with foreign names and ominous titles, like “mullah” and “ayatollah,” to stoke his base.

But Trump, unlike W., is driven by the drama of it. “It’s a game of revving up the excitement and making people afraid and then backing off on the fear in order to declare that he’s resolved the situation,” D’Antonio said. “Trump prefers threats and ultimatums to action because that allows him to look big and tough and get attention without doing something for which he will be held responsible. This is who he is at his core: an attention-seeking, action-averse propagandist who is terrified of accountability in the form of coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base.”

David Axelrod, who had the military briefing about what a war with Iran would look like when he was in the Obama White House, said: “I’m telling you. It’s not a pretty picture.”

He says he is not sure which movie Bolton is starring in: “Dr. Strangelove” or “Wag the Dog.”

If part of your brand is that you’re not going to get the U.S. into unnecessary wars,” he said, “why in the world would you hire John Bolton?

Iran Accuses U.S. of Framing it for Tanker Sabotage to Provoke Conflict

Iran accused officials in the Trump administration and its Middle East allies of attempting to frame it for an attack on oil tankers near a strategic Persian Gulf waterway.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on Tuesday said “some radical individuals inside the U.S. administration and the region” were pursuing “dangerous policies” in an attempt to pull the Americans into a military conflict with Iran.

“We had predicted that some would want to escalate tension in the region by some actions,” Mr. Zarif said in New Delhi after a meeting with his Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj.

.. “Spreading “fake intelligence” should alert everybody to what we call the B-team’s mal-intentions toward the region and the stability of the Persian Gulf,” Mr. Miryousefi said.

Iranian officials often use the term “B-team” for a quartet of people they say are trying to stoke conflict with Iran: White House Security Adviser

  • John Bolton, Israeli Prime Minister
  • Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Crown Prince
  • Mohammed bin Salman and Emirati Crown Prince
  • Mohammed bin Zayed.

The White House has yet to directly blame Iran for the attack, but President Trump said Monday that, “If [the Iranians] do anything, they will suffer greatly.”

.. While Tehran has lashed out against the Trump administration for ditching the accord, it also spent weeks trying to de-escalate tensions by staying in the deal along with the other parties.

Even some U.S. officials acknowledge a reluctance from Iran to ratchet up tensions. In late April, one week after Washington said it would not renew waivers to Iran’s oil customers. A U.S. official said its military intelligence showed that the Iranian Navy had not changed its behavior in the Persian Gulf despite threats to close down the strait if Tehran itself was unable to use it.

Meanwhile, Iranian officials such as Mr. Zarif have warned that some officials in the U.S., alongside Saudi Arabia and Israel, might try to lure Iran into a military confrontation.

“There are worries about suspicious actions and sabotages in the region, and we have predicted them before,” Mr. Zarif said. He has previously said he doesn’t believe President Trump wants a war with Iran.

.. Saudi Arabia halted pumping on a major oil pipeline after two pipeline boosters were attacked by drones, the kingdom’s energy minister Khalid al-Falih said in a statement.

.. Saudi and U.S. officials accuse Iran of providing the Houthis with training and designs to build their drones. Tehran denies the charges.

.. The U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, appeared to temper tensions after the attacks on the tankers.

“We need to do a thorough investigation to understand what happened, why it happened, and then come up with reasonable responses short of war,” Ambassador John Abizaid told reporters in the Saudi capital Riyadh on Monday.

“It’s not in (Iran’s) interest, it’s not in our interest, it’s not in Saudi Arabia’s interest to have a conflict,” he said.