Israel’s prime minister on Wednesday steered clear of Donald Trump’s comments questioning the loyalty of American Jews who support the Democratic Party, in sharp contrast to the tide of condemnation from Jewish critics who accused him of trafficking in anti-Semitic stereotypes.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to keep quiet on the controversy reflected the importance of his close alliance with Trump — a relationship that has dented the bipartisan support Israel has traditionally enjoyed in Washington as well as Israel’s equally important ties with the American Jewish community.
With an eye on re-election, Trump has attempted to use his close ties with Netanyahu to win over Jewish voters, who overwhelmingly vote for Democrats. Critics say it is part of a broader strategy that has also targeted minorities and immigrants with sometimes racist rhetoric in an attempt to shore up his base of white, working-class voters.
Most recently, Trump has focused these efforts on trying to paint Democratic congresswomen Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib as the face of the Democratic Party.
Last week, Netanyahu barred the two women, who are both Muslim and outspoken critics of Israel, from visiting his country after a public appeal by Trump. Democratic leaders, who only days earlier had visited Israel in a show of bipartisan support, criticized the Israeli decision.
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“Where has the Democratic Party gone? Where have they gone where they are defending these two people over the state of Israel?” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office on Tuesday. “I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”
The comments triggered an outpouring of condemnations from Jewish American groups and Democratic lawmakers, who accused Trump of invoking anti-Semitic stereotypes by implying American Jews have dual loyalty to the United States and Israel. At a time of rising anti-Semitism in the U.S., some expressed fear that Trump’s words could invite new violence against Jewish targets.
But Netanyahu remained silent about the latest uproar. His office declined comment, while Yuval Steinitz, a Cabinet minister in Netanyahu’s Likud party who is close to the prime minister, dismissed it as internal U.S. politics.
“We mustn’t intervene in the elections and the political disagreements in the United States,” Steinitz told Israel Radio. “We have close supporters and friends in both parties, Democrats and Republicans, both Jews and non-Jews, and we embrace everyone and want everyone’s support and friendship.”
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin spoke to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday, stopping short of directly criticizing Trump’s remarks but emphasizing the importance of U.S.-Israel ties.
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“We must keep the State of Israel above political disputes and make every effort to ensure that support for Israel does not become a political issue,” Rivlin, whose role is largely ceremonial, told Pelosi, according to a statement.
This is not the first time Trump has been accused of making comments seen by some as anti-Semitic.
On the campaign trail, he told Jewish Republicans in 2015 that “you’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money.” Following a march by neo-Nazis and White supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, he said there were “very fine people on both sides” after clashes between protesters and counter-protesters. On international Holocaust Day in 2017, Trump condemned the “horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror,” without mentioning anti-Semitism or the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis and their sympathizers.
Netanyahu’s low profile contrasted with his criticism of Omar this year when she suggested Israel’s supporters were motivated by money and not ideology. Omar, accused by Democrats and Republicans of repeating anti-Semitic tropes, later apologized.
For decades, Israel has maintained staunch bipartisan support in Washington, saying that warm relations with both parties is the bedrock of the relationship with its closest ally.
Those ties have frayed under Netanyahu, whose conservative worldview largely mirrors the Republican platform. Netanyahu appeared to side with Mitt Romney in his race against Barack Obama in 2012. And in 2015, Netanyahu famously delivered a speech to Congress attacking Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, infuriating the then-president and souring what was already a strained relationship. Netanyahu’s ambassador to Washington, U.S.-born Ron Dermer, is a former Republican Party operative.
The alliance with Trump, who is popular with the Israeli public, has paid great dividends for Netanyahu. Over staunch objections from the Palestinians, Trump has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the U.S. Embassy to the contested city. With strong Israeli encouragement, he withdrew from the U.S.-led international nuclear deal with Iran, and more recently recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war. Trump, guided by a team of advisers with close ties to Netanyahu, has cut hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians and closed the Palestinian diplomatic offices in Washington.
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But these gains have come at a price. The attention given to Omar and Tlaib has raised their profile at a time when Israel wants to isolate them within the Democratic Party. In addition, Jewish voters continue to overwhelmingly oppose Trump and appear to be linking Netanyahu to the president.
A series of decisions by Netanyahu, ranging from incendiary comments about Israel’s Arab minority seen as racist, along with the cancellation of a mixed-prayer area at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, have further alienated American Jews. Opinion polls in recent years have shown sharp differences in support for Israel among American Jews, with Republicans far more supportive than the Democratic majority.
Columnist Chemi Shalev, writing in the daily Haaretz, said Netanyahu was taking a risky path.
“In the eyes of many if not most U.S. Jews, Trump has now evolved from a suspect accused of anti-Semitism into a felon convicted beyond any reasonable doubt,” Shalev wrote. “Their anger and frustration are compounded by the widespread perception that in their hour of need, the prime minister of Israel is siding with their defamer.”
Shmuel Rosner, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Jewish People Policy Institute in Israel, said he expected Netanyahu to keep a low profile because the relationship with Trump is too valuable.
“He believes that keeping his relations with Donald Trump is essential for Israel’s well-being and safety,” Rosner said. “I don’t think Israel is going to distance itself from a president whose policies and expression of views are favorable to Israel.”
Rosner said Netanyahu will likely try to assure Democrats that he values their support and reach out to American Jews, even though he said many Israeli leaders quietly believe that support from the Jewish American community is not what it should be.
“There’s a complicated situation here for Israel to navigate,” he said. “Maybe the only way to fix this thing is to wait for a new president or a new prime minister or a new atmosphere.”