Last Sunday, the largest-ever delegation of members of Congress to visit Israel held a joint press conference in Jerusalem. The group, 41 Democrats and 31 Republicans, was there to express solidarity with the Jewish state. A major focus for the Democrats, who were led by House majority leader Steny Hoyer, was to draw a distinction between most of their members in Congress and Representatives Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D., Mich.), whose anti-Semitic utterances and support for the movement to boycott Israel have put their colleagues on the spot.
Omar and Tlaib were scheduled to conduct their own tour of the country beginning on Friday that would, in contrast to the visit of Hoyer’s group, highlight Palestinian grievances and bash Israel. But their trip was canceled Thursday morning when, only an hour after President Donald Trump tweeted that he thought it would “show great weakness” for Israel to let them visit, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government announced that they would be denied entry into the country.
At the Jerusalem press conference, Hoyer made it clear that despite the popularity of the pair and the other two members of the far-left “Squad” of congresswomen — Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts — he and the other Democrats who took part in the AIPAC-sponsored trip were more representative of the caucus’s views on Israel. As the overwhelming support the caucus gave to an anti-BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) resolution passed last month indicated, he’s right. But there’s little question that Omar and Tlaib speak for many in the Democratic base who wrongly see the Palestinian war on Israel as a righteous struggle.
A lot hangs on the question of which camp is seen as the face of the Democratic party, which is exactly why Trump chose to make an issue of the trip Omar and Tlaib had planned.
Trump’s criticisms of the Squad’s attitudes toward Israel and its supporters may be entirely correct, but his motives in this case are strictly political: The more attention he can focus on the Omars and Tlaibs of the world, the more he can portray the Democrats as a party falling under the control of the far left and boost his chances of reelection.
Trump may be the most pro-Israel U.S. president to date, and many friends of Israel are alarmed by the possibility that a Democrat with far less sympathy for the Jewish state will replace him in the Oval Office in 2021. But for Netanyahu to accede to his wishes on this issue is a mistake for a number of reasons that should have outweighed his natural desire to be in sync with the friendly leader of his nation’s most important ally.
Trump is right when he says that Omar and Tlaib hate Israel. They’re both guilty of anti-Semitic attacks on the country and its American supporters. They’ve claimed that Jews are buying congressional support and are guilty of dual loyalty, and they’ve supported an anti-Semitic BDS movement that seeks to eliminate the Jewish state. Their goal was to conduct a circus-like tour of Palestinian sites in which international journalists would help them smear Israel as an oppressor. The problems of the Palestinians would have been depicted as solely the fault of Israel, while the oppression, violence, corruption, and intransigence of both the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza would have been ignored.
But keeping Omar and Tlaib out of the country will help the cause of Israel-haters far more than the cause of Israel.
By going back on his government’s initial promise to let the two come to Israel, made last month by the ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, Netanyahu is hurting his country’s image as a free and open democracy that is not afraid of scrutiny. Even worse, by allowing Omar and Tlaib to pose as martyrs, Israel will engender sympathy for them among their fellow Democrats and aid rather than hinder their effort to ensure that the party turns sharply against Israel.
At the bottom of this controversy is a foolish law passed by the Knesset in 2017 to ban the entry into the country of foreigners who support boycotts of Israel. The point of the legislation was to hinder non-government organizations that seek to promote the false image of Israel as an “apartheid” state. The activities of BDS proponents inside Israel did little or no actual harm to the state, and their exclusion made the region’s only democracy seem like just another petty tyranny. The law may have provided catharsis to many Israelis, but it helped the country’s opponents more than it hurt them.
Law or no law, though, under normal circumstances, no Israeli government would think of enforcing a ban on a member of Congress no matter how much they were disliked or unwelcome. The unthinkable likely became Israeli policy here for reasons of political expediency. For one thing, Netanyahu may believe excluding Omar and Tlaib will help rally more right-wing Israeli voters to his side prior to the September elections, in which he is fighting for his political life. For another, it is in Trump’s interests for Netanyahu to ban Omar and Tlaib.
Moderate Democrats are trying, albeit not always successfully, to hold the line against the radicals whose animus for Israel is fueled by intersectional theories that are fashionable on the far left. But Trump wants them to fail and to further the alarming chasm between many Democrats and supporters of Israel that was widened by the misguided policies of President Obama. The further to the left the Democrats drift, the better it is for the GOP in 2020.
The failure of Democrats to censure either Omar or Tlaib after their anti-Semitic tweets and statements symbolized the unexpected, intimidating influence of the radical wing of the party. That and polls showing the vast discrepancy between lockstep Republican support for Israel and the growing divide on the issue among Democrats has caused some in the Jewish state to despair at the slow decline of the bipartisan consensus that has long guaranteed strong American support.
But good relations with the U.S. are a long-term priority for Israel that transcends the political calculations of both Trump and Netanyahu. It is not in the country’s interest to do anything that will make the break with Democrats worse. And that is exactly what Netanyahu has done by banning Omar and Tlaib.
As with Trump’s attacks on the Squad, the decision to ban Omar and Tlaib is making them appear to be sympathetic figures among Democrats and other Americans who don’t like the idea of an ally keeping out members of Congress. Most Democrats are bound to concentrate more on the perceived insult to their party than on the merits of the prime minister’s arguments, just as they did when he argued against the Iran nuclear deal before Congress in 2015.
Even worse, by announcing his decision only an hour after Trump’s tweet, Netanyahu is allowing detractors to portray him as the lapdog of an American president, which is something that will make it harder for him or a successor to say “no” to the White House the next time that is necessary.
Omar and Tlaib deserve the contempt of Israelis as well as Americans. But even those who rightly despise them should understand that this decision will do Israel far more damage than their trip could have done.