By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
The avalanche of voices condemning Israel for barring two US members of Congress grew by the minute Thursday night, hours after reports indicated Israel would prevent them from coming, and US President Donald Trump appeared to tell Israel to keep them out.
While Israeli lawmakers close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lined up in support, including former Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat (who pointed out an Israeli MK was once prevented from traveling to the US) and the deputy foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, many other Israeli politicians opposed the move. Netanyahu said “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: No country in the world respects America and the American Congress more than the State of Israel. As a free and vibrant democracy, Israel is open to critics and criticism.”
At around 5pm Israel time 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. Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office. They are a disgrace!”
He went on to say that Tlaib and Omar are the face of the Democratic party.
Israeli media had reported that Jerusalem was considering banning the Congresswoman around 10am in the morning.
Former US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro wrote “You could not ask for clearer evidence that Trump wants to destroy the bipartisan basis of the US-Israel relationship. Some friend….Here’s how it could have gone: Israel offers Tlaib & Omar briefings with govt & opposition figures, civil society, military, border tours, facilitate broad engagement w/Palestinians. Result: If they accept, they learn. If they don’t, their agenda is clear. But…Trump rules.” Colin Kahl: “And the US should not be pushing fellow democracies to violate democratic values.”
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.”
Jerusalem Post editor in chief Yaakov Katz: “For decades Israel has strived and worked hard to enjoy US bipartisan support. Trump, b/c of politics, wants to stop that. Netanyahu has an obligation as PM to try & prevent Israel from turning into a one-party partisan issue.” Neri Zilber agrees, “None of us should be surprised Netanyahu willing to burn down entire US-Israel bipartisan relationship to appease Trump & Israeli Right. But even by past standards this is so v stupid & short-sighted.”
Israel Policy Forum: “Israel Policy Forum expresses its disappointment at the reported decision of the Israeli government to deny Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib entry to Israel next week…Denying them entry can only serve to harden their current views, along with delivering an insult to the U.S. Congress, exacerbating partisan divides on Israel, and creating a dangerous precedent. We strongly urge Prime Minister Netanyahu to reconsider.”
In addition Jonathan Tobin “write in JNS.org: Even those who rightly regard Omar and Tlaib with anger and contempt should understand that this decision is a self-inflicted wound that will do Israel far more damage in terms of its interests and its image than any short-lived visit would have done.” Yoni Michanie: “This is extremely short-sighted and reckless. The US-Israel alliance needs to live past 2024.” Steve Rabinowitz: “I carry no water for Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar on Israel but to deny them entry there is both counterproductive and just plain wrong. In fact, it’s outrageous. There is now broad consensus across the Jewish community and growing in Congress save for tiny pockets of Trump and Bibi loyalists. For Netanyahu, it’s at the same time very helpful in maybe winning re-election and even more damaging in losing the hasbara or messaging war.” But Josh Hasten wonders “Does anybody have proof that it was President Trump who pressured PM Netanyahu to ban the two Congresswomen?”
“What Israel should have done is to prepare a full itinerary for them — meetings with MKs and ministers, visits to important landmarks in Israel, etc. And see how they reacted to such an itinerary which Israel should have made VERY public.”
Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley responded as well. “When you attack one of us, you attack all of us. Netanyahu is stoking division and punishing dissent just like the occupant of the White House….we should reevaluate our relationships with any country who seeks to ban Americans and threatens the safety of anyone, including government officials.” She went on to argue “I’m calling this like I see it: bigoted, short sighted and cruel. Any leader committed to advancing democracy would welcome with open arms two democratically elected United States Congresswomen. And every single member of Congress should be calling this out.”
Representative Katie Porter condemned Israel.
Congresswoman AOC wrote “Netanyahu’s discriminatory decision to ban members of Congress from Israel harms int’l diplomacy. Visiting Israel & Palestine are key experiences towards a path to peace. Sadly, I cannot move forward w scheduling any visits to Israel until all members of Congress are allowed.”
Cong. Omar also put out a statement
US Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden opposed Israel’s move as well. “No democracy should deny entry to visitors based on the content of their ideas—even ideas they strongly object to. And no leader of the free world should encourage them to do so.” Nancy Pelosi responded “Israel’s denial of entry to Congresswomen Tlaib & Omar is beneath the dignity of the great State of #Israel. Trump‘s statements about the Congresswomen are a sign of ignorance & disrespect, & beneath the dignity of the Office of the President.” Kamal Harris “Kamala Harris: No nation should deny entry to congress members.” Bernie Sanders called Trump’s tweet disgusting.
Senator Marco Rubio also opposed the Israeli decision. “I disagree 100% with Reps. Tlaib & Omar on #Israel & am the author of the #AntiBDS bill we passed in the Senate But denying them entry into #Israel is a mistake. Being blocked is what they really hoped for all along in order to bolster their attacks against the Jewish state.”
Emma Goldberg at The Forward argues this is how Israeli democracy ends. “I wrote for the Forward about Netanyahu’s decision to block Ilhan Omar & Tlaib from entering the country. As Israel escalates its suppressive tactics, it brings to mind a Hemingway quote about how the author went bankrupt: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” You could say the same about a country’s slide away from democracy.”
Lose lose situation
Did Omar and Tlaib outmaneuver Israel. “Tlaib and Omar successfully out-maneuvered Israel, and boxed it into a lose–lose situation. Plus, after all Trump has done for Israel, Netanyahu can’t say ‘no’ to him — and Trump did not want this visit,” Herb Keinon writes.
Caroline Glick: “Tlaib and Omar’s plan to visit “occupied Palestine,”put Israel in a lose–lose position. I say, if you’re going to get hurt no matter what, at least you shouldn’t give your enemy what he/she wants. They wanted to come to hurt Israel. So Israel barred them from doing so. Good.”
Richard Grenell, US Ambassador to Germany:
One account (@ElderofZion) looks more deeply at the organizations hosting the Congresswoman or that they would meet with. Arsen Ostrovsky notes:
And Seth Mandel notes “So Tlaib & Omar 1) support an org whose mission is the destruction of the Jewish state; 2) were going on a trip funded by a group that shares that mission; 3) called the entire place ‘Palestine,’ erasing Israel. Bibi should’ve let them in but let’s have an honest discussion here.”
Dov Hikind wondered “Why didn’t you [Omar and Tlaib] join the Democrats who went to Israel last week?”
Who outplayed who?
Whole some have suggested that Tlaib and Omar outplayed Israel, the reality may be more complex. Israel was presented with a difficult choice: Allow anti-Israel politicians to go solely to meet Palestinians and pro-Palestinian groups, or deny them entry and cater to the self-fulfilling narrative that Israel is undemocratic.
But the larger issue was that the US President also sought to manipulate this issue. Left alone to its own choices Israel would likely have let them come. It’s unclear, despite Israel’s large investment in public diplomacy, why it didn’t seek to create its narrative earlier. This is a reminder to the lead-up to the Mavi Marmara where, despite widespread knowledge, Israel seemed behind in the narrative. It also reacted in a way that was not helpful, pragmatic or prudent.
Israel had ample resources to try to expose, beforehand, the agenda of Omar and Tlaib. Instead there was little discussion until a day before. I had written about avoiding cliches during the trip in early July, but in general media was mum. So, partly due to elections distraction and other issues relating to how Israel deals with foreign ministry-related necessities, there wasn’t much planning. It all came to a head on August 15.
Put in a difficult spot by Trump’s tweet, Israel had few choices. In fact it appears now that Israel was outplayed by its ostensible ally, not as much by its own tendency to sometimes make ham-handed mistakes. Was this a kind of price for Trump’s pro-Israel policies on the Golan, Jerusalem, or on UNRWA and the “deal of the century”? Many have said that now Israel is increasingly a partisan issue. It sure looks a bit problematic since a large Congressional delegation was just in Israel.
Even the Prime Minister’s office notes that Israel had welcomed 70 members of Congress. There are related problems. Did Israeli officials consult with these supporters in Congress, or with major organizations in the US? It appears that most pro-Israel organizations agree that barring Tlaib and Omar was counterproductive.
While the ZOA supported Israel’s decision, the AJC did not;
The outcome of this is whether it has weakened Netanyahu’s stature. Does he appear too indebted to the US President now? Or will he weather this storm easily as he had weathered other crises? It’s not entirely clear yet. Netanyahu needs to position himself in a place of strength before the elections, asserting that it is he who helps link Israel to world powers and leaders such as Trump, Putin or India’s Modi. He appears as an equal party in these meetings, a major world leader. But this incident with the Congresswoman, initially, due to the US President’s tweets, may not make it appear that way.
The incident also reveals a lack of coordination between Israel and the US. Although the US Ambassador to Israel put out a strong statement backing Jerusalem’s choice, it isn’t clear if this was fully thought through and whether it continues to erode support for Israel among Democrats. Certainly every time Israel becomes a partisan issue, it can’t be helpful in the long-run.