Before ban, ex-US envoy tried to set up meetings for Omar with Israelis

Dan Shapiro says he hoped to provide ‘some balance’ to tour; US congresswoman wanted to sit down with security officials, MKs, source says

Adam Rasgon is the Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., right, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., at a news conference, August 19, 2019 at the State Capitol in St. Paul, Minnesota, after their planned trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank was blocked by Israel. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., right, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., at a news conference, August 19, 2019 at the State Capitol in St. Paul, Minnesota, after their planned trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank was blocked by Israel. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

Former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro was working to set up meetings for Congresswoman Ilhan Omar with ex-Israeli security officials and Jewish and Arab Knesset members before Israel decided to bar her from entering the Jewish state last week, a congressional source said on Wednesday.

Israel announced last Thursday that it would prevent Omar and Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib — who have both expressed support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and heavily criticized the Israeli government — from entering the country.

Omar had planned to arrive in Israel last Saturday in hopes of meeting with former security officials and Arab and Jewish MKs before embarking on the rest of her tour of the area, the congressional source told The Times of Israel, adding that the US lawmaker’s office had asked Shapiro to set up the meetings on her behalf.

“As a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Omar wanted to hold meetings with these security officials and Knesset members,” the congressional source said, emphasizing that, if finalized, they would have been in addition to the trip itinerary that Omar and Tlaib were to begin on Sunday.

Asked whether Tlaib planned to meet with Israeli officials or Knesset members, a spokesman for the Palestinian-American lawmaker did not respond.

Israel granted Omar and Tlaib permission to enter in principle last month, but backtracked last week and banned them from visiting under a 2017 law allowing it to expel or deny entry to anyone who backs the Palestinian-led BDS movement.

The decision was made less than two hours after Trump tweeted that it would “show great weakness” if Israel gave them permission to come, and the reversal was widely seen as the result of pressure from the US president.

Israel later approved a request by Tlaib to visit her aging grandmother in the West Bank under the condition that she did not promote boycotts of the Jewish state during her stay, but Tlaib then said she would not be coming.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the decision to deny entry to the two was finalized after reviewing their itinerary.

Former US Ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, participates in the Meir Dagan Conference for Strategy and Defense, at the Netanya College, on March 21, 2018. (Meir Vaaknin/Flash90)

The Kan public broadcaster’s diplomatic affairs reporter Gili Cohen published a copy of what she said was a “tentative agenda” of Omar and Tlaib’s trip itinerary that was slated to begin Sunday afternoon, which included meetings with US embassy officials, international organizations, American expatriates, a Palestine Liberation Organization official and others, as well as stops at a Palestinian hospital in Jerusalem, a refugee camp in Bethlehem, a Palestinian university near Ramallah and a Bedouin village facing a possible demolition.

The document did not refer to any meetings with Israeli officials or Knesset members and only included stops in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The congressional source contended that Omar’s efforts through Shapiro to set up meetings with former Israeli security officials and Knesset members refute Netanyahu’s claim that she did not make any requests to meet with Israeli officials.

In a statement explaining Israel’s decision to bar Tlaib and Omar’s entry, Netanyahu said last Thursday: “Several days ago, we received [Omar and Tlaib’s] trip itinerary, which clarified that they planned a visit whose sole purpose was to support boycotts and deny Israel’s legitimacy. For example, they 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.”

Asked about the congressional source’s remarks, a spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office referred The Times of Israel back to Netanyahu’s original statement.

The congressional source added that he could not confirm the identities of the security officials and MKs that Omar wanted to meet, other than MK Aida Touma-Sliman, who has publicly said she planned to meet the congresswoman.

Shapiro confirmed that Omar’s office contacted him to set up meetings and said he consented in the hopes of offering “some balance” to what he understood was the US lawmaker’s “one-sided” trip itinerary.

“I am asked to advise and speak to many Congressional and other delegations to Israel, as I did with Rep. [Steny] Hoyer’s 41-member delegation two weeks ago,” Shapiro said in an email statement, referring to a group of Democratic members of congress who visited Israel earlier in August.

“Rep. Omar’s office contacted me to ask for help in arranging meetings for her with Israeli political and security experts that would be held separately from the group schedule. I agreed, in hopes of providing some balance to what I understood was clearly a one-sided itinerary. Before the visit was canceled, meetings for her were in the works with Jewish and Arab Members of Knesset, and discussions were underway with security experts to provide briefings,” he added.

View of a plenum session of the Knesset, July 2, 2018. (Flash90)

Shapiro, who served as the top US envoy to Israel between 2011 and 2017, is currently a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a prestigious think tank affiliated with Tel Aviv University, where a number of former Israeli security officials work.

Shapiro, however, said he did not think the meetings would have changed the aims of the trip, which he believed sought to draw criticism of Israel and support the Palestinians.

“Even had these meetings taken place, I had no illusions that they would have changed what I understood to be the goals of the trip, which were primarily to give voice to the delegation’s criticisms of Israel and sympathies for Palestinians,” he said.

“My advice, as it is to all visitors, was to conduct a visit that would allow hearing a wide range of voices of Israeli and Palestinian officials, non-officials, security experts, students, civil society representatives, and businesspeople to understand the full complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian situation, and an appreciation of the multi-faceted US-Israel alliance. Short of that, I still felt it was worthwhile to try to provide some balance to her trip,” Shapiro added.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed