“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 rights.”
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 necessary.
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 intrinsically lopsided.
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 West Bank.
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 that tweet.
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 Trump.
Gershom Gorenberg is an Israeli historian and journalist. His books include The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977 and The Unmaking of Israel. He is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect and has written for The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, and The New York Review of Books.