Analysis'The far left wins, Trump wins, & Israel definitively loses'

And then Trump tweeted — Why Israel suddenly decided to bar 2 US congresswomen

Israel’s DC envoy initially said Tlaib, Omar were free to visit. But less than 2 hours after US president wrote that letting them in ‘would show great weakness,’ everything changed

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

US President Donald Trump (R) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embrace prior to signing a Proclamation on the Golan Heights in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House, March 25, 2019. (Saul Loeb/AFP)
US President Donald Trump (R) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu embrace prior to signing a Proclamation on the Golan Heights in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House, March 25, 2019. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

Earlier this week, the largest-ever Congressional delegation — 41 Democrats and 31 Republicans — visited Israel in an impressive show of bipartisan support for Israel. At a joint press conference in Jerusalem on Sunday, the leaders of the delegation agreed that Israel should let Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota into the country for a visit they were planning to start this weekend.

“I think it would be helpful for anyone that has an opinion to come,” Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said.

Anybody who comes to Israel to learn “will leave with a much more positive view,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) concurred.

Their view seemed to be in line with the policy of the Israeli government, which never made a secret of its misgivings about the two freshman lawmakers, but said it would welcome them nonetheless.

“Out of respect for the US Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America, we would not deny entry to any member of Congress into Israel,” Jerusalem’s ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer told The Times of Israel on July 19.

Screen capture from video of Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Michigan, addressing the US House of Representatives during a debate over a resolution rejected boycotts of Israel, July 23, 2019. (YouTube)

But US President Donald Trump evidently disagreed. “It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit,” he tweeted on Thursday.

“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!”

First reports indicating that Jerusalem might change course had emerged earlier in the day, when a diplomatic official told reporters that Israel might yet declare the two controversial legislators personae non gratae.

With his tweet, Trump removed any doubts, even though Israel had not yet made the official announcement at the time of his writing. It was clear that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would not dare to openly disagree with Trump.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. at the Capitol in Washington, July 18, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

An hour and a half after the presidential tweet, Interior Minister Arye Deri’s spokesman sent out a statement making it official: Omar and Tlaib would be barred due to their support for BDS. “These are people who use the most central stage for supporting BDS organizations calling for boycotts of Israel,” the ministry stated. “The State of Israel respects the US Congress, as part of the tight alliance between the countries, but it is inconceivable that entry would be granted to those who seek to harm the State of Israel even during their visit.”

Twenty minutes later, Netanyahu issued a lengthy statement of his own. According to their itinerary, Tlaib and Omar defined their destination as “Palestine” and not Israel, the prime minister wrote. They did not seek any meetings with Israeli politicians, not even those from the opposition, he lamented.

The reasons for Israel’s sudden about-face plainly originated in the White House. The president has long made Omar and Tlaib, who support the anti-Israel boycott movement, the target of bitter attacks at his political rallies, citing their criticism of the Jewish state and alleged anti-Semitism.

Last week Trump reportedly criticized Jerusalem’s decision in principle to let the two congresswomen into the country. If Omar and Tlaib wanted to boycott Israel, “then Israel should boycott them,” Axios quoted a source close to Trump as saying.

The White House swiftly denied that report. “The Israeli government can do what they want. It’s fake news,” press secretary Stephanie Grisham said.

But on Thursday, Trump made his feelings about the matter public, and those sentiments prevailed, whether they were conveyed to Israel in the form of an explicit request or whether the powers that be in Jerusalem acted out of preemptive obedience. Israel’s Channel 12 news reported late Thursday that Trump and Netanyahu were in contact several times in recent days over the issue.

Many pundits, notably including many pro-Israel pundits, immediately criticized the decision. “Banning members of Congress from visiting Israel, where they can see facts on the ground with their own eyes, is counterproductive and plays into President Trump’s goal of politicizing support for Israel,” said Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America.

Aaron Keyak, one of her predecessors, called Israel’s reversal a “painful moment for those of us who care about a strong US-Israel relationship and fight for the cause of peace.”

Ann Lewis and Mark Mellman, who head Democratic Majority for Israel, said in a joint statement that they strongly disagree with the “anti-Israel, and in some instances anti-Semitic, views” articulated by the two congresswomen. Nonetheless, they added, “there is simply no excuse for any country, including Israel, to prevent travel by elected officials of the United States.” Jerusalem was “both wrong and unwise to reverse their earlier decision.”

Michael Koplow, of the Israeli Policy Forum, predicted that keeping out sitting members of the House would “reverberate for years” and boost BDS rather than counter it. “And the way this will unfold is tragically predictable. It will cause a firestorm, Democrats who disagree with Omar and Tlaib will be forced to rush to their defense (as they should), Trump will use this as ‘proof’ that Dems hate Israel, wash rinse and repeat,” he tweeted.

“So the far left wins, Trump wins, and Israel definitively and overwhelmingly loses. And all because Netanyahu is too scared to stand up to Trump when he’s using Israel for his own politics.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and AJC Executive Director David Harris (right) during a meeting Monday in Israel (photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi/AJC)
AJC Executive Director David Harris (Olivier Fitoussi/AJC)

Even David Harris, the CEO of the American Jewish Committee, agreed that barring two sitting congresswomen will likely have a detrimental impact on the future of bipartisan US support for Israel.

Harris issued a statement noting Omar and Tlaib’s “unrelenting hostility toward the Jewish state and their active support for the BDS movement.” They intended for their trip to be a pro-Palestinian “propaganda exercise” that aimed at undermine “the very legitimacy of the State of Israel,” Harris said. And yet, he maintained, “Israel did not choose wisely by reversing its original decision.”

Every country has the right to refuse entry to those coming with bad intentions, he allowed, but added that his organization nonetheless believes that the “costs in the US of barring the entry of two members of Congress may prove even higher than the alternative.”

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