The Mexican-Israeli conflict began on Twitter and ended with a phone call between two heads of state.
On Jan. 28, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted his approval of President Trump’s proposed wall on the U.S.-Mexican border. “President Trump is right,” Netanyahu wrote. “I built a wall along Israel’s southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea.” With that, Israel’s head of government had unnecessarily waded into a divisive political issue unfolding thousands of miles from his own country’s territory. And he appeared to cheer on a U.S. plan to wall off its southern neighbor. Mexico, whose government understandably opposes the proposed wall, wasn’t happy about it.
The Mexican government quickly expressed its “surprise” and “disappointment” over the tweet to Israel’s embassy in Mexico City, and on Jan. 31, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin apologized to his counterpart, Enrique Peña Nieto, during a phone conversation, hopefully putting this brief Israeli-Mexican crisis to a close. Rivlin even tweeted a rosy summary of his talk with Nieto in both English and Spanish. The English version ended with an Israeli and Mexican flag, perhaps mimicking the emojis that punctuated Netanyahu’s initial tweet.
There is much that was reductive and stupid about Netanyahu’s stupid and reductive tweet. Israel does not have a wall demarcating its desert border with Egypt; it’s more like a really intense fence. Israel’s border fence with Egypt is largely meant to protect the Jewish state from the jihadist militants, many of them affiliated with ISIS or al-Qaida, who stew in the often lawless Sinai peninsula. In contrast, the objective of Trump’s proposed wall isn’t to shield America from terrorism or militancy, but to keep out undocumented immigrants.
Netanyahu committed another, even more revealing, error. Intentionally or not, the tweet brings to mind Trump’s repeated invitations from the campaign trail to “ask Israel whether or not a wall works,” an apparent reference to the Israeli-constructed West Bank separation barrier. But Netanyahu’s tweet instead self-consciously draws attention to Israel’s other border barrier, as if the prime minister wants to distract from the more problematic boundary running roughly alongside Israel’s 1949 disengagement line with Jordan. About 10 percent of the West Bank barrier is in wall-form, thus making it more immediately applicable to Trump’s project.
Twitter semiotics (or is it Twitter diplomacy?) is an often pointless endeavor—it’s tough to achieve any level of specificity inside of 140 characters whose meaning tends to be highly contingent. But the platform’s inherent ambiguity is hardly an excuse for a world leader whose tweets can validly be interpreted as statements of national policy. Whatever Netanyahu’s motivations for this ghastly missive—perhaps a train of corruption investigations already has him in wagon-circling, right-tacking election mode; maybe he realized that flattery is the surest and perhaps only way to gain Trump’s trust and decided that improved ties with the leader of the most powerful nation on earth would justify any resulting fallout from his tweet, or maybe he wanted to ding Mexico for its tendency to vote against Israel in International fora—the tweet created an actual, real-world, offline international incident.
Thus, the heads of state of the world’s most populous Spanish-speaking country and its only Jewish state spent a portion of their undoubtedly busy schedules discussing one of their colleague’s tweets. Mexico considered the tweet to be a serious diplomatic breach, and Rivlin apparently agreed. If there’s any upside to this brief spat, it’s that it shows certain rhetorically irresponsible leaders aren’t above correcting their mistakes. At the same time, it’s an example of an ill-advised tweet quickly spiraling into the high-stakes arena of international diplomacy. Given both Trump and Netanyahu’s track record, this probably won’t be the last time that happens, either.