Five Things to Know This Week: Special Relationships and Twitter Fights
1. Good walls make good political buddies
When President Trump walked out to the Rose Garden last month announcing an end to the government shutdown, he drew on one of his favorite arguments supporting building a wall along the U.S.-Israel border. “Israel built a wall, 99.9 percent successful,” the president exclaimed. A few weeks earlier he invoked the Israeli wall in a televised Oval Office showdown with Democratic leaders, telling them that “If you really want to find out how effective a wall is, just ask Israel.” The Israeli wall, Trump added, is “99.9 percent effective and our wall will be every bit as good as that, if not better.” And then on January 26, Trump tweeted a plea for the wall, linking to a short video depicting Israel’s wall, as the narrator states that in “2017 there was not one illegal immigrant that made it through the southern border into Israel.”
But wait, which wall is Trump talking about, and how did he come up with this figure? When talking about Israel and walls, one immediately assumes the speaker is referring to the separation wall along the Green Line dividing Israel proper from the West Bank. This is a massive barrier erected after the Second Intifada in order to stop Palestinian terror attacks against Israelis. It is made up of huge concrete walls, barbed wire fences and fortified with electronic sensors and surveillance devices as well as thousands of soldiers. This is the fence that Trump proudly showed in his video clip, and probably the one most Americans think of when their president touts Israel’s success story. But this can’t be the wall he’s talking about. The wall did not block 99.9 percent of immigrants, since it was never meant to stop illegal immigration (and, needless to say, illegal immigration is not a problem on the Israeli-Palestinian border). So it must have been another wall, namely the one built by Israel alongs its 150-mile border with Egypt. Is there a valid comparison to make between Israel’s fence along its southern border and Trump’s wall?
In a very general sense, both are aimed at the same purpose—stopping migrants from entering the country illegally. For Trump, it is about migrants fleeing hardship and danger in Central American countries, and for Israel it is about a wave of asylum seekers from Eritrea, Sudan and South Sudan who had crossed the Sinai desert to seek refuge in Israel. At its peak, African migration to Israel through the Sinai border reached nearly 20,000 people a year. After the fence was erected in 2013 it dropped dramatically to several dozens. Now, with the full fence in place, the number of migrants trying to enter Israel is close to zero.
So, Israel has proven that border walls actually work, right? Not necessarily. The wave of migrants to Israel through Sinai was indeed blocked. But experts believe it wasn’t only the fence. An extremely harsh policy regarding the treatment of asylum seekers by Israel eventually led many to seek other routes. Israel refused to hold asylum hearings on a large scale and rejected most asylum claims that were heard. In addition, it enacted a policy of detaining migrants in an isolated camp and tried to deport them to third countries in Africa. Those living in Israel have had to deal with hostility from Jewish neighbors in Tel Aviv’s poorer neighborhoods. These measures, alongside the border fence, helped deter African asylum seekers from entering the country, to a rate of, well, 99.9 percent.
But these are all details, and if there’s one thing America has learned about Trump, it is that he is not really into details. Trump has injected Israel and its “99.9 percent effective” wall into the debate in exactly the fashion he mentions Israel in any discussion about Syria, Iran or the need for American presence in the Middle East. His political gut feeling tells Trump that throwing Israel into the debate is always a good idea: The evangelical base will love anything Israel does, from settlements to walls to whatever, conservatives have always liked using the Netanyahu government as a symbol for implementing harsh, yet just, policies in a tough region, and Democrats, well, they already feel under attack for allegedly not being sufficiently supportive of Israel, so they’d rather not take on a new argument against its policies.
2. …and Netanyahu is also cashing in on his special friendship
Trump isn’t the only one benefiting from this super-close relationship. Just look at Bibi Netanyahu’s latest billboard signs. In fact, the term billboard doesn’t really do justice to these signs. They are massive 10-story tall posters covering entire buildings, one in the entrance to Jerusalem and the other greeting motorists coming into Tel Aviv. They show a giant size Netanyahu shaking hands with an equally enormous Trump, both smiling straight at you. The caption promises that Netanyahu is “in a different league,” meaning he is a statesmen like no other politician vying to replace him in the upcoming elections. And the key to proving Netanyahu’s statesmanship is Trump, the president who delivered on Bibi’s two biggest dreams —breaking up the Iran nuclear deal, and moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.
This symbiotic relationship between Trump and Netanyahu is benefiting both sides. It gives Trump an Israeli kosher stamp for his wall, while affirming Netanyahu’s standing as a world leader in the face of growing dissent among other western allies of Israel.
3. A Twitter fight to watch: Greenblatt v. Ashrawi
Following his boss’s penchant for conducting foreign policy via Twitter, Trump’s Middle East peace envoy Jason Greenblatt has been busy these past days with a very public Twitter dispute with Palestinian leaders. You can follow the back and forth between Greenblatt and Palestinian spokesperson Hanan Ashrawi on their Twitter accounts or look at the excellent Washington Post writeup of the dispute. Why should you care? Because the twitter exchange between these two wise people, as raw and barbed as it may be, gives an excellent reflection of where negotiations stand, and why they’re not going anywhere: Palestinians cannot overcome Trump’s pronounced bias toward Israel. The Trump administration cannot grasp the Palestinian feeling of betrayal.
4. Another Twitter fight to watch: Zeldin v. Ilhan Omar
While you’re at it, stick around on Twitter for another brawl. This one is waging between Republican Lee Zeldin and freshman Democrat Ilhan Omar. One is Jewish, the other Muslim. One supports BDS, the other thinks it’s a form of anti-Semitism. Both, by the way, have been victims of hateful expressions, including a vicious anti-Semitic voicemail message that Zeldin shared in a tweet. The exchange ended, at least for now, in a more upbeat tone, with Zeldin accepting Omar’s offer to sit and talk “maybe over Somali tea, in your old office which I happen to be in now.” Why bother looking up the Twitter fight? because it demonstrates the political weaponization of BDS. From a marginal issue in the political discourse, BDS has taken on a life of its own, thanks, in part, to the very strong feelings it invokes on both sides of the divide.
5. Ending AIPAC’s monopoly on Middle East trips
Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian woman in Congress, is trying to counter the decades-long tradition of AIPAC-sponsored Congressional visits to Israel, with her own trip to Palestine. It is still not known how many members will sign up for her trip, but what is clear is that some in Congress are starting to feel a bit nervous about Tlaib’s idea. Republican Brian Babin of Texas wrote to Speaker Pelosi asking her to block Tlaib’s trip, and Democrat Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs committee also expressed his objection, calling on Tlaib to “listen and learn” before she makes up her mind on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whether or not Tlaib gets her trip off the ground, it likely won’t change the overall pro-Israel consensus among lawmakers from both parties. It is however, an important development to watch, since, if successful, it could signal a growing interest in challenging the pro-Israel mainstream. AIPAC (through its subsidiary American Israel Educational Foundation) have been taking lawmakers on educational visits to Israel for years. But they’re not the only ones in the field: J Street has their own trips, as do the RJC and other local Jewish groups.