by Naomi Dann
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will visit with President Trump at the White House this week. It will be a true meeting of minds. Both leaders are bombastic and rely on false claims, fear-mongering, and stereotypes to pursue discriminatory, racist, and violent policies.
The parallels would be comical if they weren’t so harmful. Just last week, Trump asserted, based on no evidence, that people were bussed to New Hampshire to vote against him, almost echoing Netanyahu’s much derided 2015 effort to turn out voters in his favor with the racist claim that “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are busing them out.” The two leaders have shown their appreciation for each other’s policies, with Trump repeatedly pointing to Israel as the model for his proposed wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and Netanyahu tweeting his support.
Trump’s discriminatory travel ban is in many ways an implementation of what Netanyahu has long advocated. As Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev wrote recently, Trump and his adviser Steve Bannon are taking a page from Netanyahu’s book on radical Islam. “It’s time to put an end to the era of unfettered immigration for all,” Netanyahu wrote in his 1996 book Fighting Terrorism. “Terrorists from the Middle East and other places have turned the United States, Germany, Italy and other countries into terrorist sanctuaries.” Israel already has restrictive and discriminatory immigration policies, which privilege Jewish immigration while barring Palestinian refugees from returning to their homeland. It also maintains a ban on immigration from several of the same specific Arab countries, Iran, Iraq and Syria, as well as Lebanon.
Trump’s invocation of terrorism as the basis of his discriminatory executive order targeting Muslim immigration also draws on a deeper discourse that has roots in Israel and with Benjamin Netanyahu himself. Journalist Kevin Toomis, writing in The New Statesman in 2004 credits Netanyahu as a central figure in the development of “counter-terrorism,” which he characterizes as “a bogus intellectual justification for authoritarianism, military repression and neoconservative Islamophobia.” The anti-Muslim bigotry in the discourse of counter-terrorism and national security is by no means new in the United States or in Israel. But in the context of Trump’s presidency and his upcoming meeting with Netanyahu, it’s worth trying to understand the role that Israel and Netanyahu himself have played in perpetuating this framework.
Scholars of terrorism credit a specific 1979 symposium in Jerusalem as a turning point in the U.S. and international usage of “terrorism” as we understand it today. The Jonathan Institute, founded following the death of Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother Yonatan during a raid to rescue hostages from a PLO hijacking, hosted a 1979 conference in Jerusalem— and a follow up in 1984 in Washington—on “International Terrorism.” Directed by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Jonathan Institute maintained close ties to the Israeli government. Current and former Israeli officials across the political spectrum—including Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin, Ezer Weizman, Moshe Dayan, and Shimon Peres—dominated its administrative committee.
Lisa Stampnitsky, in her 2013 book Disciplining Terror, discusses how the Jonathan Institute helped internationalize Israel’s use of the term to describe terrorist violence as both irrational and illegitimate in both means and ends, and as primarily targeting democracies and “the West.” Previously, she notes, terrorism referred largely to rational political violence, either state or individual, and was dealt with as an issue of criminality and law. The shift helped Israel delegitimize the political aims of certain groups, such as the Palestinian resistance to its colonization and territorial occupation. One cannot be a “freedom fighter” if one’s political aims are demonized as illegitimate or irrational. Stampnitsky argues that the shift to using terrorism to describe violence outside the law also set the stage for retaliatory strikes (such as the 1986 U.S. air strikes in Libya in response to a bombing at a Berlin disco that killed an American soldier) and eventually for the doctrine of preemptive force that has characterized the post-9/11 “War on Terror.”
Israel’s role in the development of a specifically anti-Muslim discourse of terrorism is deeply intertwined with the foreign policies of American politicians. As Deepa Kumar and others have pointed out, American neocons and Israel’s Likud party jointly developed a shared language around Islamic terrorism. The 1979 Jonathan Institute conference was attended by prominent American officials and political figures, including future President George H.W. Bush and representatives of the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Commentary magazine who brought the ideas, and later a follow-up conference, back to the U.S.
Intended to serve as an intervention into the international discourse on terrorism, the explicit aim of the Jerusalem conference was to awaken the Western world to the problem of terrorism as defined by the conference organizers. It contributed to entrenching in the minds of American conservatives what was popularized a few years later as the “clash of civilizations,” firmly situating Israel in the category of Western democracies threatened by Soviets and Palestinians. The follow-up conference in the United States in 1984 went further by emphasizing the relationship between Islam and terror. As Netanyahu himself wrote in the book that came out of the conference: “the battle against terrorism was part of a much larger struggle, one between the forces of civilization and the forces of barbarism.” Then, as now, Netanyahu presented Israel as the bulwark against terrorism, a specific kind of illegitimate political violence that threatens not just Israel but all democracies and the Western world.
Trump Takes Up the Baton
Echoes of this framing of the debate on terrorism can be found in how Western politicians, including Netanyahu and Trump, discuss the issue. Terrorism, which has no single agreed-upon definition in U.S. or international law, now serves as a moniker applied to all violence that established states deem illegitimate. Most often these days, Western democracies use “terrorism” to describe violence committed by Muslims. As journalist Glenn Greenwald writes, “In other words, any violence by Muslims against the West is inherently ‘terrorism,’ even if targeted only at soldiers at war and/or designed to resist invasion and occupation.”
The term functions not as a descriptive tool but an ideological one. It doesn’t merely identify a particular kind of violence. It justifies and even requires a particular kind of forceful response by the state.
Israel today presents itself as the world’s expert on counterterrorism. It maintains a profitable security industry predicated on selling expertise and technology tested in its interactions with Palestinians. American tax dollars have been funneled into this industry through U.S. military aid, over 25% of which Israel was allowed to spend domestically (the new military aid deal signed by the Obama White House will phase out this allowance over the next 10 years, sending the rest of the $3.8 billion per year to U.S. defense contractors). The United States and Israel collaborate on counterterrorism initiatives, including joint military exercises and police exchange programs. Here tactics and skills are developed and exchanged for surveillance and violent repression of protests that primarily impact Muslims and people of color in the U.S. and Palestinians and Black Jews in Israel.
In this context, Trump’s framing of his anti-Muslim immigration policies as a national security priority to keep out terrorists is nothing new. What is new in this political moment is the extent to which the U.S. public is seeing straight through this discourse and rallying against discrimination and bigotry. Ahead of Trump and Netanyahu’s meeting this week, there’s an opportunity to pay attention to how these discourses have enabled Israel to justify decades of military occupation and human rights abuses with the discourse of national security and counterterrorism. As the Trump administration goes back to the drawing board to devise restrictive immigration policies that will hold up in court, Netanyahu and Israel’s example shouldn’t be far from mind.