What could possibly be the best way to sum up the past five days of Israel/Jewish news? The biggest “UGH” ever, by broad consensus.
Weeks after Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., said that firebrand progressive Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib would be allowed to visit Israel, Israeli officials reversed their decision, ostensibly because of pressure from President Trump.
The Congresswomen are well known for their intense criticism of Israel (crossing the line, for many, into anti-Semitism), and their support of the BDS movement to boycott and isolate the Jewish State.
That was Thursday morning.
Friday morning, Tlaib, who is Palestinian, sent a letter to the head of Israel’s Interior Ministry asking to be let into the West Bank on humanitarian grounds to visit her 90-year-old grandmother.
In exchange, Tlaib promised not to advocate for BDS during the trip. But after Israel granted the visit, Tlaib reversed her decision, tweeting, “visiting my grandmother under these oppressive conditions stands against everything I believe in.”
Congress and the American Jewish/Israeli world has been in a near-constant uproar throughout these developments. And if you’re thinking, wow, uproar, that’s like the 613th time this year, WTH is going on and why should I care — you’re not alone.
“Wait, you mean to tell me the Netanyahu government is on the verge of doing something incredibly stupid and self-destructive to Israel and its international standing?” tweeted Yair Rosenberg, a senior writer at Tablet Magazine, Thursday morning when reports were just coming in about the Israeli flip-flop. “I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to be more specific.”
So let’s get specific — as always, there’s a lot to sort through.
Omar and Tlaib’s “U.S. Congressional Delegation to Palestine” trip, a long-advertised AIPAC-alternative tour of Israel and the Palestinian territories, was meant to start on Sunday, Aug. 18.
Their tentative itinerary has been criticized for a lack of meetings with Israeli officials and for the trip being sponsored by MIFTAH, an organization that avidly supports boycotting the Jewish State. MIFTAH has also been known to publish classic anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, like accusing Jews of blood libel.
The Congresswomen, and their agenda, put Israeli officials on edge. But nonetheless, they agreed to let them into the country… until U.S. President Trump came into play.
With rumors circulating on Thursday morning about Israel banning Omar and Tlaib, Trump tweeted, “It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit. They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds.”
Or, in simple terms, as tweeted by Lahav Harkov, senior contributing editor to The Jerusalem Post:
“Trump: Send them back to where they came from!
Also Trump: Don’t let Tlaib back where she (her parents) came from!”
Jewish and Israeli journalists from across the political spectrum agree that Trump’s attack on the Congresswomen and forceful advice to Israel left Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu no choice but to ban Omar and Tlaib. Trump had reportedly been pressuring Netanyahu behind the scenes to do so over the past week.
Israel is in the second round of national elections this year. And Netanyahu’s campaign strategy has been dependent on painting himself as a strong leader and a friend of Trump. Banning Omar and Tlaib keeps Trump happy and guarantees his further help in Netanyahu’s re-election.
Officially, Netanyahu and Israeli officials are saying that Trump had nothing to do with banning the Congresswomen and point to their BDS agenda and biased trip itinerary. But many aren’t buying it.
“Amb. Dermer, who is so close to Netanyahu that he’s sometimes nicknamed Bibi’s brain, said Israel would let Tlaib and Omar in because they’re elected Congresswomen and the U.S. is our ally,” Harkov said. “Which means this isn’t just jumping to a BDS ban & not wanting anti-Israel ppl here.”
Harkov added: “A Trump tweet makes it all about him. It’s symbolically violating our sovereignty at our borders but it also just doesn’t let Israel make the decision that’s best for us – whatever it may be – after careful deliberation, because Netanyahu will want to keep him happy.”
Netanyahu’s decision is already shaping up to be one of the biggest PR disasters in the Israel-U.S. relationship in recent years. Members of Congress from across the political spectrum have criticized the ban. Even Jewish organizations known for largely parroting the Israeli government’s official views, like AIPAC, have come out against the decision.
Tlaib has been given center stage on a very effective soapbox by Netanyahu. She is now calling the ban on her and Omar a “Muslim ban,” a talking point that has spread among activists and some members of Congress, like former vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine.
The Democratic party is rallying around her, and staunchly pro-Israel Democrats are notably sidelined, as they had asked Israeli officials to let Omar and Tlaib visit Israel. Netanyahu’s partisanship and Trump’s weaponized use of Omar and Tlaib are reinforced.
And finally, in order to clear up the plot and understand what this mess really means, let’s pivot to how the Jews are arguing about this. And I’ll be clearer about my personal opinion here:
Does Israel have the right to deny entry to anyone they want?
Yes. European countries do it all the time, for example. This isn’t what we should be talking about.
Omar and Tlaib are clearly anti-Israel and want to boycott Israel, so it’s only fair that they get banned.
Omar and Tlaib are members of the United States Congress in case we’re forgetting in our criticism that they are duly elected federal lawmakers. So what is the precedent set by Israel here? Denying entry to officials from its closest ally and from one of the major political parties Israel needs to keep a close relationship with. Not a good look. Part of the important conversation that we need to be more nuanced about.
And you know, I’ll play this card: even Israeli leaders like David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir knew when to play smart diplomacy with hostile politicians. The smart thing would have been to let Omar and Tlaib come and let the bad press play itself out. When the organization sponsoring the trip has published Jewish blood libels, Israel shouldn’t have to work so hard to discredit the Congresswomen.
Israel now has its own “Muslim Ban.”
Nope. There is a good deal of legitimate criticism, but this ain’t it. Omar and Tlaib have not been denied entry because they are Muslim. Israel has a (controversial) law about denying entry to those that support boycotting the country, and see again: Trump and Netanyahu in context of Israeli elections. Not what we should be talking about.
Israel agreed to let Tlaib in to see her grandma in the West Bank, and then Tlaib refused to go. Isn’t this another political play to make Israel look bad?
I’ve got mixed feelings here. When your only option to see your grandmother is to set aside your political beliefs, that’s a hard call. Whether or not we want to empathize with Tlaib (regardless of those political beliefs) is another question. But I understand both possibilities that it was an honest reversal in context and that she did so for another finger to point at Israel. But the fact that she signed a letter practically begging to be let into the West Bank by Israel, agreeing to suspend her BDS activism… not many political activists are able to do that.
UGH, so what should we be talking about?
When we boil down this set of events, a few things are abundantly clear: Trump pushed Netanyahu into a bad decision. A U.S. president pushed the prime minister of the Jewish State, and the prime minister said “okay” because it’s in the interest of his re-election campaign.
Israeli officials know that banning Omar and Tlaib is a terrible foreign policy move — otherwise they wouldn’t have decided to let them in a month ago, out of respect for Congress as an institution and the United States as an ally.
All of that went out the window on Trump’s whim. There’s a reason Israeli journalists of all political stripes are noting that this undermines Israeli sovereignty.
We should be talking about that. Do American Jews like their president to have this much sway on Israel?
And as others in the Jewish world have brought up, Israel has survived diplomatic isolation, wars, economic crashes, and all manner of terrorism. Would Israel not have survived a visit from Tlaib and Omar? Was it necessary to fuel this enormous PR storm, give them leverage, and make Israel look bad with a crucial part of its closest ally’s government?
Maybe not. We should talk about that.
But also… the Israel-U.S. relationship has been through many rocky times, so this one is no exception beyond the details themselves. Maybe it’s worth reflecting on that and striving for levelheadedness in reaching the big conclusions.
For example: Will this drive the Democrats further away from Israel? No idea. But it sure doesn’t give them a good reason to be friendlier.
We should talk about that too.