The U.S.-Israel relationship suffered a profound setback Thursday. Israeli Interior Minister Aryeh Deri confirmed that Israel would bar two members of Congress, Democratic Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, from entering Israel because of their support for the BDS movement, which calls for boycotts, divestment and sanctions on Israel.
Thursday’s decision to deny Tlaib and Omar entrance to Israel reversed the earlier position expressed by Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, who in July said that “Out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America, we would not deny entry to any member of Congress into Israel.”
The policy Dermer articulated should be expected of a U.S. ally that is also the top recipient of U.S. foreign aid ($38 billion in security assistance over 10 years). Overturning that policy can only be interpreted as a sign of disrespect for the U.S. representatives democratically elected by American voters. Worse yet, with President Donald Trump pushing the change, it also demonstrates the disrespect for democratic institutions both country’s leaders are increasingly embracing — and their willingness to turn the U.S.-Israel relationship into a political football to advance their own interests.
Trump tweeted Thursday morning that “it would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit” and claimed preposterously that “They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds.”
While both congresswomen have criticized Israel, Trump’s accusation of anti-Semitism is baseless and inflammatory, and continues a cynical pattern of using Jews and Israel as a cudgel with which to attack his political opponents. Trump has been engaged in a vicious and polarizing battle with Omar, who was born in Somalia, and Tlaib, who is the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, that he and his aides see as whipping up support from his base.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s willingness to go along with Trump’s desires by barring Omar and Tlaib also says troubling things about Israeli democracy. With Netanyahu surpassing the country’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, as Israel’s longest-serving leader, Israel’s democracy is in a state of perilousdecline. This has accelerated in the Trump era, during which much-touted “shared values” between the U.S. and Israel no longer seem to include liberal protections for free speech.
According to Israel’s 2017entry law, individuals calling for boycotts of Israel or its illegal West Bank settlements will be barred from the country. Because of this illiberal and anti-democratic law, the Israeli government needed to issue a waiver in order for Omar and Tlaib to enter Israel.
Netanyahu cited the congresswomens’ planned itinerary as reason for refusing to do so, claiming it showed “the sole purpose of their visit is to harm Israel and increase incitement against it.” While a tentative agenda for the “Delegation to Palestine” circulated by an Israeli journalist indicates the delegation was not going to spend time in Israel or meet with Israeli officials, Israeli government claims that Tlaib and Omar were going to engage in a “BDS circus” or cause Israel harm are completely unfounded.
And like Trump, Netanyahu also has political reasons for wanting to stoke the flames of discord between himself and the two Muslim congresswomen. The prime minister is weak and desperate to remain in his job after Israel’s upcoming elections on Sept. 17, which could help him stay out of jail on corruption charges. He has cast his warm relationship with Trump and other world leaders (invariably illiberal populists and autocrats) as a major selling point with the Israeli electorate. And, reportedly, he hasasked Trump to bless Israeli annexation of West Bank settlements – in contravention of long-standing, bipartisan U.S. policy – before the election.
Trump is popular with right-wing Israeli voters who are pushing for annexation of the West Bank and are highly supportive of the entry law keeping supporters of BDS out of the country. Since Bibi needs their votes, he’s in no position to turn down the U.S. president’s request that Israel take part in Trump’s attacks on his political opponents.
Netanyahu is choosing to put wooing right-wing voters and his relationship with Trump ahead of maintaining strong bipartisan U.S. support for Israel. The fact that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a U.S. lobby that’s staunchly supportive of the Israeli government, took the extremely rare step ofquestioning the wisdom of Israel’s decision speaks volumes. While AIPAC hasclashed strongly with Omar, it operates according to theprinciple that American support for Israel must be bipartisan.
If there is a positive upshot to any of this, it may be that the denial of entry to Tlaib and Omar could highlight to the American public one of the consequences of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Since Israel controls entry to the West Bank, Tlaib cannot visit her grandmother and other family there without the permission of the Israeli government.
If that helps to spark American opposition to Israel’s 52-year occupation of territories it conquered in the 1967 war, which the Israeli right-wingcares more about extending than breaking the BDS movement, that is a good thing.
Israel has long claimed that a visit to Israel is the best antidote to strident criticism of the country. In a joint press conference in Israel this week, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Democrat, and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican, echoed this line in saying that Israel should allow Tlaib and Omar in. As McCarthy remarked, “Anyone who comes with open ears, open eyes and an open mind will walk away and have an understanding, just as these members do, that this bond is unbreakable” between the U.S. and Israel.
On Thursday, frustrated that the Israeli government had gone back on the assurances it made to him that Tlaib and Omar would be permitted entry, Hoyer called the decision “outrageous, regardless of their itinerary or their views,” and stated, “This action reflects weakness, not strength.”
Now it’s up to members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, to speak in one voice and tell Israelis the truth: Their government is doing them and the U.S.-Israel relationship a grave disservice.
Netanyahu should correct his mistake. The Israeli government should invite Tlaib and Omar to travel to Israel and the territories under its control. And the congresswomen should incorporate a visit to Israel and meetings with Israeli officials in their itinerary. It is time to mend some badly damaged fences.
- Dr. Debra Shushan is the director of policy and government relations at Americans for Peace Now, the sister organization of Israel’s Peace Now movement. She was previously a Middle East politics professor at the College of William and Mary.
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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