Jerusalem, we have a problem.
That giant sucking sound you hear isn’t those American manufacturing jobs that H. Ross Perot warned in 1993—with some prescience, I have to admit—would be headed to Mexico if Congress ratified the North American Free Trade Agreement.
No. It’s the sound of Benjamin Netanyahu sucking up to President Donald Trump in advance of a White House visit scheduled for later this month. The Israeli Prime Minister recently endorsed, via that new diplomatic backchannel known as Twitter, Trump’s plan to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Last week, newly-confirmed Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said that the border wall should be built within two years. To the chagrin of some Trump supporters, Kelly also said that the wall would not be a continuous barrier but rather—in some places—a virtual wall with sensors that are monitored by Border Patrol agents.
But who asked Netanyahu for his opinion anyway? This subject is a bit outside his wheelhouse, isn’t it?
Now, I have much respect for the Prime Minister, and I’d defer to him if the topic directly impacted his neighborhood, like Iran’s nuclear capability or fighting Hamas.
But a proposed wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, when Jerusalem is 7,788 miles away from Mexico City? No way, Jose.
Still, on Jan 28, @netanyahu tweeted: “President Trump is right. I built a wall along Israel's southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea.” The tweet came complete with images of the U.S. and Israeli flags.
Oy vey! Again, why is a proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border any of Bibi’s business? Just because he says that he too built a wall on Israel’s southern border?
Netanyahu must be talking about the Israel-Gaza security barrier, which Israel first constructed between the Gaza Strip and Israel in 1994—or two years before he became prime minister for the first time. After being torn down, the barrier was rebuilt in 2000-2001. Another section was added in 2005. But Netanyahu missed both of those construction periods as well, since he didn’t begin his second term as prime minister until 2009. Of course, it is true that, for the last several years, Netanyahu has enthusiastically embraced the idea of building barriers and walling off his country from its Arab neighbors.
Of course, the Israeli barrier was built to keep out terrorists. The one that Trump has in mind for the U.S.-Mexico border is meant to keep out tomato pickers—and housekeepers and gardeners and anyone else eager to help Americans do chores they won’t do.
Besides, consider the scale of these projects. The first security barrier separating Israel from the Gaza Strip spanned just 37 miles. Then came plans to build another 60 miles worth of fencing. The U.S.-Mexico border spans 1,951 miles.
Are these two barriers comparable in any way, shape or form? It doesn’t look like it.
The United States and Mexico are trapped in this sick, codependent, and dysfunctional marriage where divorce isn’t an option. The parties blame each other when things go wrong, and neither wants to take responsibility for making things worse. It’s been a powder keg for many years, and now Trump has come along and made the situation even more explosive.
There is even this story floating around that Trump gave Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto a major dressing down during a recent phone call from the White House. According to Washington-based journalist Dolia Estevez, who cited sources on both ends of the call, Trump told the Mexican leader that he was prepared to send the U.S. military to Mexico to fight the drug cartels and that he was going to build the border wall and Mexico was going to pay the bill whether it liked it or not.
Both the White House and Pena Nieto’s office dispute the story and insist the call was much more cordial. Nevertheless, both sides are clearly on edge, and the marriage is on shaky ground.
So this is the wrong time for Netanyahu to butt in. He should understand what it is like to be in a sensitive relationship—or a series of them—where one always has to be careful about what one says and does so as not to wreak havoc, spark conflicts, or risk lives. Lastly, he should approach the subject of walls and fences with more humility, since nothing that Israel has constructed has stopped terrorists from using tunnels to sneak across the barrier and attack Israelis.
Guess what? There are also tunnels between the United States and Mexico. Lots of them.
Netanyahu’s ill-advised tweet caused shockwaves in three different countries—Israel, Mexico and the United States. In a communiqué to the Israeli Ambassador, Mexico’s Foreign Ministry expressed “profound surprise, rejection and disappointment in the prime minister's message on Twitter” and declared that “Mexico is Israel's friend and should be treated as such.”
There was even an apology of sorts from Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who seems anxious to get past the brouhaha.
“I am sorry for any hurt caused as a result of this misunderstanding,” Rivlin recently told reporters. “But we must remember that we are talking about a misunderstanding, and I am sure that we can put the issue behind us.”
And Netanyahu himself made reference to the controversy just two days after his tweet. He backed off his praise for Trump’s proposed border wall, and claimed that he was talking about Trump’s earlier praise for Israel’s security barrier.
“I did not comment about U.S.-Mexico relations,” Netanyahu insisted. “We’ve had, and will continue to have, good relations with Mexico.”
Mr. Prime Minister, stop digging. You seem to consider yourself an expert on walls. But this particular wall half a world away is not—as you claim—a good idea. In fact, the whole concept of a massive wall made of brick and mortar, spread along the nearly 2,000 mile border between the United States and Mexico, is a few tacos short of a combination plate.
I say that as someone who lives less than 50 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border and who has written about the immigration debate for more than 25 years at three different newspapers in the Southwest. Border Patrol agents have told me for years that there is no barrier known to man that a desperate human being can’t find a way around, over or under if it means feeding his family. That’s not politics. That’s real life.
I also say it as someone who knows that the U.S.-Mexico border has been on your mind for some time. In 2002, I saw you give a speech in Dallas where you compared the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians to the one between Americans and Mexicans. You claimed that Palestinians were trying to crash the gates and enjoy the fruits of what the Israelis had created.
Then you turned to the crowd and said: “Now, you here in Texas wouldn't know anything about this phenomenon.” You were right. The Texans don’t know. Who in the hell do you think picks their fruit? You also noted that immigration impacts demographics, and insisted that a mass migration of Palestinians would “flood” Israel. You turned to the crowd again, and said: ”You know about this. This is the reason you have an INS.” Then you asked how Americans could expect Israel to allow mass immigration when we won't do the same, particularly on our Southern border. You were trying to drum up empathy, but the whole thing gave me the creeps.
And I say it as someone who had the opportunity to meet with you for about an hour in Jerusalem in 2012, along with four other Latino journalists. I left that meeting with a new admiration for your independence, and your unwavering resolve to protect Israel.
I respect your grasp of the issues in your part of the world. But, despite your strong opinions, I’m worried that you don’t understand how things work in mine.