- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to block Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib from visiting came off as a sign of political desperation.
- President Donald Trump on Thursday urged Israel to block the first two Muslim women to ever serve in Congress from entering the country over their support of the Boycott Divest Sanction (BDS) movement.
- But in doing so, Israel has made US support for Israel a partisan issue, and unwittingly signal-boosted the boycott movement that seeks to isolate Israel over its occupation of the West Bank.
- “What a bulldozer to drive through the bipartisan consensus on Israel,” former US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said in an op-ed responding to the move. “What a self-own.”
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Israel’s decision to block two US lawmakers from visiting reveals how fragile its government is and how desperate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has become.
Netanyahu might have scored some political points with his right-wing base and President Donald Trump in the short-term with this move, but in the long-run the decision is likely to backfire and erode the historic relationship between the US and Israel.
President Donald Trump on Thursday urged Israel to block Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib – the first two Muslim women to ever serve in Congress – from entering the country over their support of the Boycott Divest Sanction (BDS) movement.
But in doing so, Israel has made US support for Israel a partisan issue, and unwittingly signal-boosted the boycott movement that seeks to isolate Israel over its occupation of the West Bank. Israel’s move also risks polarising younger Americans who are less willing to accept Israel’s occupation unconditionally.
Trump warns Israel not to show “weakness”
“It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit,” Trump tweeted on Thursday morning. “They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds.”
Shortly thereafter, the Israeli government announced the lawmakers would not be allowed to visit, prompting an avalanche of criticism – including from the powerful pro-Israel lobby in the US, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
We disagree with Reps. Omar and Tlaib’s support for the anti-Israel and anti-peace BDS movement, along with Rep. Tlaib’s calls for a one-state solution. We also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand.
— AIPAC (@AIPAC) August 15, 2019
Amid the ongoing uproar, the Israeli government reversed somewhat on Friday and said it would allow Tlaib – a Palestinian-American – to enter the country on humanitarian grounds to visit her 90-year-old grandmother but only if she agreed in writing to not “promote boycotts against Israel” while there.
But the damage was already done, and Tlaib has rejected the opening. “In my attempt to visit Palestine, I’ve experienced the same racist treatment that many Palestinian-Americans endure when encountering the Israeli government … I will not allow the Israeli government to humiliate me and my family,” she said in a statement.
After, Israeli Interior Minister Ayreh Deri said of Tlaib, “I authorised this humanitarian trip, but it turns out that it was a provocation to embarrass Israel. Her hatred for Israel overcomes her love for her grandmother.”
Israel bans Boycott Divest Sanction (BDS) supporters
At the center of this drama is the BDS campaign, which calls for the international community to place economic and political pressure on Israel with the goal of ending the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. BDS is a nonviolent movement, but is not without controversy or critics – and some have argued it’s anti-Semitic. Israel also has a law on the books that blocks supporters of the campaign from visiting, but initially seemed to be willing to make exceptions for Omar and Tlaib, who both publicly back BDS.
The lawmakers had no plans to spend time in Israel proper, and instead would visit cities in the West Bank Palestinian territory like Hebron, Ramallah, Bethlehem, and East Jerusalem to shed light on the occupation.
In announcing its decision to block the lawmakers from entering, Israel cited Omar and Tlaib’s support for BDS as part of its justification.
“They planned a visit whose sole objective is to strengthen the boycott against us and deny Israel’s legitimacy,” Netanyahu said in a series of tweets on Thursday.
“No democratic society should fear an open debate”
But in barring these Muslim lawmakers from coming on these grounds, critics have said Netanyahu made himself and Israel look weak, intolerant, and fearful of criticism. Many also seem to feel he’s kowtowed to Trump and come off as subservient to the president, and given momentum to BDS by making it appear a legitimate threat to Israel.
“Contrary to Mr. Trump’s tweet, it is blocking entry by two American legislators who are critics of Israel that shows great weakness, especially after Israel hosted visits by delegations of 31 Republican and 41 Democratic lawmakers this month,”The New York Times editorial board wrote on Thursday. “It has long been Israel’s mantra that critics of its policies should come see for themselves, and the country is certainly strong enough to handle any criticism from two members of Congress. Mr. Trump has done Israel no favour.”
Similarly, former Republican Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois, who’s recently apologised for being an early supporter of Trump, on Thursday tweeted, “Shame on Netanyahu. The whole thing makes Israel look really weak & small. Yea, Trump was behind it all, but we already knew he was a weak, small man.”
Democratic leaders in Congress – House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, both of whom are longtime advocates of the US-Israel relationship – also characterised the move as a “sign of weakness” from Israel.
Netanyahu and Trump both want make this an election issue
Netanyahu is having a rough year politically and is up for re-election next month. The Israeli leader is looking to shore up as much support as possible to avoid another embarrassment after Iawmakers voted to dissolve parliament in May when he failed to form a coalition government following April’s national elections.
Similarly, Trump is up for re-election next year and the two lawmakers – who are Muslim and women of colour – are perfect targets for him to rile up his base.
In her unabashed criticism of Israel, Omar has at times been accused of using anti-Semitic tropes. The former Somali-refugee, who came to the US as a child, apologised and maintained that she did not intend to offend the Jewish community and “unknowingly” used offensive tropes.
Comparatively, after Trump sent racist tweets about Omar, Tlaib and two of their fellow freshman Democrats – Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley (collectively known as “The Squad”) – he rejected the firestorm of criticism that followed and claimed he didn’t have a “racist bone” in his body.
At a campaign rally after the tweets, Trump’s supporters chanted “SEND HER BACK!” in reference to Omar as the president criticised her. Trump did nothing to stop the xenophobic display, and looked on for 13 seconds before speaking again.
While Omar has signalled remorse over offending people and a desire to improve the way she communicates, Trump has doubled-down on his attacks on the Minnesota lawmaker and the rest of “The Squad.” He’s essentially making this group his 2020 opponent, though none of them are running for president, and playing off of the same sentiments that saw him call for a ban on Muslims entering the US during his 2016 campaign.
By capitulating to Trump’s call to ban Omar and Tlaib, critics say the prime minister of Israel has made his country complicit in the president’s campaign of bigotry as he simultaneously embraces extremist political parties in his own country – and the US-Israel relationship may never be the same.
“Trump’s racism and Netanyahu’s dependency have brought us to this point: Israel is showing disrespect to the US Congress and looking afraid to engage Americans who disagree with them,” Daniel Shapiro, the former US ambassador to Israel (from 2011 to 2017) wrote for The Atlantic on Thursday.
“What a bulldozer to drive through the bipartisan consensus on Israel,” Shapiro added. “What a gift to the BDS movement, which until now, most Americans had never heard of. What a self-own.”
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