There’s no doubt that the planned visit to Jerusalem and the West Bank by US Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar would have presented extraordinary diplomatic and, potentially, security challenges to Israel.
The two lawmakers are prominent supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), ostensibly dedicated to pressuring Israel to change its policies regarding the Palestinians, but actually devoted to demonizing Israel in the ultimate cause of depriving it of its existential legitimacy. Tlaib has gone so far as to invoke Nazi Germany in defense of her calls to boycott Israel and is a supporter of the so-called one-state solution that would spell the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
The entire purpose of their visit, protested Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in justifying his unprecedented decision to ban the entry of the serving US lawmakers, “was to support boycotts and deny Israel’s legitimacy.” Basing himself on what he said was a copy of their tentative itinerary that he had received, he noted Thursday that they even “called their destination ‘Palestine’ and not ‘Israel,’ and unlike all Democratic and Republican members of Congress before them, they did not seek any meeting with any Israeli official, whether government or opposition.”
Quite understandably, Israel worried that every stop on their trip — every meeting with religious leaders, and medical officials, and UN staffers, and Palestinian youths; every photo-op near settlements, inside refugee camps, alongside the security barrier, and elsewhere in contested West Bank territory — would be utilized as an opportunity to showcase to the widest possible audience worldwide their carefully selected interlocutors’ castigations of Israel and to add their own, with the bolstered credibility of their roles as elected lawmakers of the United States of America.
Israel’s security forces were also already gearing up for untold potential repercussions of their planned visit to Al-Aqsa Mosque atop the Temple Mount — the holiest place in Judaism, and the third most holy in Islam. Here, at one of the most incendiary places on the planet, even an inadvertent minor confrontation can explode into major conflict. And next Monday, Israel feared, potential confrontation prompted by their planned visit could have been far from inadvertent.
It would have been so much more convenient had the first two Muslim women ever elected to Congress instead chosen to join the dozens of other freshmen US legislators who have been in Israel over the past few days on overlapping Democratic and Republican visits organized by the educational affiliate of the pro-Israel AIPAC lobby, whose itineraries included trips to the West Bank and meetings with Palestinian officials. (Full disclosure: I gave current affairs briefings to some of these legislators.)
But self-evidently, the duo had their own agenda, which differs utterly from that of AIPAC, and thus planned their own, highly selective, highly problematic trip.
To which Israel initially, and rightly, sighed silently and publicly said: We need to respect these elected American legislators. We need to honor and underline our democratic credentials. We need to let them in. (As Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer put it last month: “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.”)
What Israel then needed to have done was gear up to battle the anticipated demonization effort by means of effective diplomacy and initiative. Perhaps, straightforwardly, to have arranged high-profile events at which Israel’s advocates would have set out the Zionist narrative — underlining Israel’s freedoms and religious pluralism, detailing the efforts at peacemaking stymied by the Palestinian leadership, highlighting the all-too evident terrorism utilized against Israel’s citizens, deconstructing the Palestinians’ victim narrative. The prime minister himself, a world-class advocate for Israel, could have led that effort.
Israel might have invited the pair to visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, to meet with bereaved parents or go to rocket-battered Sderot. Had they declined, their hostility would have been naked. Had they accepted, so much the better.
Maybe a mission could have been arranged of delegations from Tlaib’s and Omar’s districts, including people who have worked with Israelis in various fields and have first-hand experience of the light-unto-the-nations Israel to which the two legislators seem willfully blind. Israeli officialdom budgets immense sums to meet precisely these challenges, and there are long-established government and private organizations and initiatives dedicated to the cause, doubtless overflowing with good ideas.
It was a battle that needed to be fought, in a continual war that Israel has been winning for more than seven decades because of the essential legitimacy of our cause
All of this would, nonetheless, probably have been largely a losing battle. Our unwanted guests would have been the high-profile outsiders with the camera crews in tow. The Israeli-organized alternative events would have garnered far less coverage. But it was a battle that needed to be fought, in a continual war that Israel has been winning for more than seven decades because of the essential legitimacy of our cause.
Israel hasn’t won every argument against its critics. Israelis themselves, needless to say, disagree over innumerable aspects of this country’s policies, direction and essence. That’s what happens in a democracy. We should be proud of it, and usually are.
Come and visit, we’ve urged everybody down the decades. See for yourselves
A mantra of modern Israel when confronting the endless ranks of its critics, indeed, has been that there is no substitute for seeing Israel first-hand. Come and visit, we’ve urged everybody down the decades. See for yourselves. Grapple with the complexities. Recognize the challenges. Even the most certain, the most opinionated, the most stubborn of detractors, we have rightly asserted, can be profoundly affected by such a visit. And even if they are not won over or even influenced, those around them, and those watching them, often are.
Instead, presumably under pressure from a US president who naturally has his own agenda, his own partisan political agenda — sometimes deeply beneficial to Israel, but other times not — Israel on Thursday changed tack and announced that these two troublesome critics would not be allowed to see for themselves after all. That even though they would have turned their backs on everything we’d have wanted to show them and those accompanying them, we were going to deny ourselves the opportunity to so much as try. That we were awarding them the propaganda victory, the opportunity to denounce us and to ridicule our democratic claims, without so much as mustering a defense.
And what, from now on, will we be saying to our other potent democratically elected critics from allied countries, those we have hitherto lambasted for not seeing for themselves? You can’t come unless you promise to be nice to us, and to see the things we want you to see? Is that, for example, how we’re going to re-word former Labor leader and current Jewish Agency chair Isaac Herzog’s previous invitation to the bitterly anti-Israel, anti-Semitic Jeremy Corbyn, who is hoping to become prime minister of Great Britain one day soon, and who we have decried for not making a visit?
There’s every reason, indeed, to believe that Tlaib and Omar were coming here full of bad intention, bent on doing us harm. Of course they would have sought to abuse our democratic freedoms in order to try to weaken and undermine us. But they are now filled with still greater determination to make their case against us, in a climate increasingly sympathetic to them, and we have denied ourselves the opportunity to make ours.
Perhaps what is most troubling about our closing of our own doors to these pernicious critics, however, is that the move smacks of a loss of will by our leadership, a loss of self-confidence. It suggests that Israel, or those who currently helm it, do not think they have the ammunition to fight back, and cannot muster effective arguments to counter the skewed narrative the duo would have sought to present on the ground here and will now instead present back home, un-countered, in the US.
And that is a failing that Israel simply cannot and dare not countenance. As that super-articulate defender of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, of all people, should surely know best.