According to their tentative itinerary, the two first Muslim women ever elected to US Congress expected Monday to be touring Jerusalem, notably including visiting the flashpoint Temple Mount — the holiest place in Judaism, and site of the third holiest mosque in Islam.
Instead of grappling with the colossal security headache of seeking to ensure that their visit to this most incendiary of places passed off without the kinds of confrontation and long-term violent fallout we have known in the past, Israel is instead grappling with the repercussions of its decision to deny Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar entry to the country. Rather than fueling tensions in the Holy Land, the two anti-Israel Democrats are thus at home in the US, fulminating against Israel’s unprecedented ban on serving US legislators, and doing their best to widen the circle of opposition to the Jewish state.
How and why did Israel decide to ban the pair, having initially promised to let them in? How credible are the claims, from both the American and Israeli leaderships, that this was Israel’s independent decision, not a US President Donald Trump-imposed turnaround? Was Omar intending to meet Israeli officials in the course of her trip, and if so, which Israelis, when, and why weren’t such meetings on the tentative published agenda? How damaging is the ban to the bipartisan Israeli cause in the US, and how worried is the pro-Israel community about the consequences?
Trump warned that Israel would “show great weakness” if it allowed the two legislators in. The concern is that Israel demonstrated great weakness, and risked great damage to its long-term, bipartisan relationship with its most vital ally, by keeping them out.
1. Blame the envoy
It was fascinating, and disheartening, to watch Foreign Minister Israel Katz on Saturday night attempting, from a TV studio in Israel, to throw our Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer under a bus thousands of miles away in Washington DC — reducing a major diplomatic incident to petty, personal politics. Rather than seeking to diplomatically reconcile the contradiction between Dermer last month promising that Israel would allow a visit by the well-known BDS-backing congresswomen Tlaib and Omar, and the Israeli government banning the visit on Thursday, Israel’s ostensible top diplomat hung its most prominent ambassador out to dry.
Dermer’s overturned entry promise was issued without his approval, or that of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, expostulated Katz. “It was not with the prime minister’s blessing, it was not a decision of the Israeli government… It was not with my blessing. He gave his opinion,” wailed the minister, who is ostensibly Dermer’s boss — though in fact the veteran Netanyahu envoy Dermer reports directly to the prime minister.
Twenty-four hours later, Netanyahu showed Katz the diplomatic path he could have followed, backing Dermer by saying the envoy had of course been right in principle to promise entry to Israel for all and any duly elected US legislators, while simultaneously seeking to justify the volte face by claiming that Israel hardened its heart and chose not to let the pernicious pair visit once their itinerary had been received and it became crystal clear that their trip would be a calculated exercise in Israel-demonizing.
Doubtless, Katz could have managed to find a similar formula himself, had he wished to. Presumably, since he used the same Channel 12 interview to declare that he intends to succeed Netanyahu as prime minister come the day, and since Netanyahu has reportedly been talking up Dermer as a potential successor, Katz didn’t wish to.
2. About that itinerary
Diplomatically elegant though Netanyahu’s explanation for the policy reversal might have been, it raises a few questions. Among them: A month ago, when Dermer gave his assurance that Tlaib and Omar would be allowed to visit, they were the same well-known supporters of BDS that they are today. Netanyahu said in his explanatory declaration on Sunday that the “only one exception” to guaranteed entry for US legislators was “the BDS law that obligates us to evaluate the entry of people who support BDS.” But the BDS law was passed in 2017. It was as emphatically in effect last month, when Dermer said yes to Tlaib and Omar, as it was last week, when Netanyahu said no. (In 2016, by contrast, when Israel did allow what Politico reported was a similar visit by five US congressmen to “Palestine – Jerusalem – Ramallah,” the BDS law had not been legislated.)
Furthermore, the Tlaib-Omar trip had been in the planning stages for weeks. As a NODEL trip — involving members of Congress traveling abroad with the support of unofficial, non-governmental, sponsors — it would have required the submission of paperwork for approval by the House Ethics Committee 30 days prior to departure. On Sunday, the Times of Israel sought unsuccessfully to establish with the committee whether it had received the intended Tlaib-Omar itinerary a month ago. Such paperwork could confirm whether — as the tentative published itinerary indicated, and as Netanyahu has stated — the two did not plan any meetings with Israeli officials, or whether, as Omar’s office has claimed, she, at least, was planning to meet with Israeli MKs and security officials.
An aide to Omar specified to The Times of Israel on Friday that among the Israelis she intended to meet was Arab Knesset member Aida Touma-Sliman. ToI has also learned that her office reached out to at least one other MK, from the center-left of the spectrum, though it is not clear that this meeting was finalized, and to at least two other intermediaries with a view to setting up meetings for her with Israelis, though, again, it is not clear what, if anything, was finalized. These meetings were set to take place on Saturday and Sunday, before the start of their joint visit, and did not involve Tlaib, ToI was told. According to Omar’s aide, she was planning to fly in early for these meetings, which, again, do not feature on the tentative published itinerary for the Tlaib-Omar “Delegation to Palestine.”
3. No pressure. Just friendly advice
The embattled Ambassador Dermer assured the mainstream leaders of American Jewry on Thursday that Israel’s entry ban on Tlaib and Omar was not a consequence of pressure from Trump. “We were not pressured by the Trump administration to do this and this is a sovereign decision that Israel has to make,” Dermer said in a conference call organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
If you say so, Ambassador Dermer.
But Trump reportedly castigated Israel’s initial decision to let them in.
Then, shortly before Israel announced that it was changing its mind, 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!”
And immediately after the deed was done and Israel announced that they were barred, Trump told reporters during a campaign stop in New Jersey on Thursday that he “did speak to people over there” regarding the issue, and that “I think it would be a terrible thing for Israel to let these two people who speak so badly about Israel come in.” He added: “They’ve said some of the worst things I’ve ever heard said about Israel. So how can Israel say welcome?”
So, no pressure at all, then. Reported Reuters on Thursday, citing an Israeli source who took part in Netanyahu’s pre-ban consultations: “In a discussion held two weeks ago all the officials were in favor of letting them in but, after Trump’s pressure, they reversed the decision.”
4. Israel, an increasingly partisan issue
Plainly, the US president, aiming for reelection, would like to make Israel a wedge issue — to depict the Democrats as weak and unreliable on Israel, whose well-being is widely supported by the US electorate. He evidently regards highlighting the viciously anti-Israel positions of Tlaib and Omar, aware that this could impact perceptions of the wider Democratic Party’s stance, as a useful political tool.
Plainly, too, Netanyahu is wary of opposing, irritating, or even getting slightly on the wrong side of this US president — who broke precedent to visit the Western Wall, who recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, who moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, who shares Netanyahu’s stance on Iran and withdrew from the Obama-led Iran nuclear deal, who endorsed Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights, who will be in power for another one and a half to five and a half years… and who showed with his assault on the hapless former British prime minister Theresa May how quickly and devastatingly he can turn on an erstwhile ally.
5. Just say no
Like Trump, of course, Netanyahu, too, has an urgent partisan agenda: He is aiming to get re-elected next month, and is hoping for another Jerusalem- or Golan-style pre-election boost courtesy of the White House: A nod toward partial Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank, perhaps? Permission for Jonathan Pollard to make aliya? A US-brokered meeting with a hitherto unapproachable regional leader? Movement toward a (spectacularly controversial) formal US-Israel defense pact?
A prime minister less compromised by his battle for survival, with all the attendant corruption allegations, would have taken the longer-term view, forgone the potential Trump pre-election boost, recognized the imperative to avoid damaging ties with mainstream Democrats, and courteously, diplomatically, resisted the Trump pressure
Unlike in Israel, of late, however, the partisan political pendulum does actually swing in the United States. One day, in the not-too-distant future, the Democrats will regain the presidency.
A prime minister less compromised by his battle for survival, with all the attendant corruption allegations, would have taken the longer-term view, forgone the potential Trump pre-election boost, recognized the imperative to avoid damaging ties with mainstream Democrats, and courteously, diplomatically, resisted the Trump pressure.
6. Hoyer and a broken promise
If anyone doubts how gravely Israel’s handling of this affair has impacted mainstream, pro-Israel Democrats, look no further than the response of Steny Hoyer, who just days ago led an unprecedentedly large mission of 41 freshman Democratic legislators to Israel on a trip organized by the educational affiliate of the AIPAC pro-Israel lobby. A steadfast supporter of Israel who has been leading these missions for years, Hoyer on Thursday issued so coruscating a denunciation of Israel’s behavior that it was almost possible to see the steam rising from his ears as he formulated it.
“The decision of the Israeli government to deny entry to Israel by two Members of Congress is outrageous, regardless of their itinerary or their views,” the statement began. And then it got worse, alleging betrayal: “This action is contrary to the statement and assurances to me by Israel’s ambassador to the United States that ‘out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America, we would not deny entry to any Member of Congress into Israel.’ That representation was not true.”
The next day, after Tlaib had requested permission to visit her grandmother on humanitarian grounds and promised not to utilize the trip for BDS activity, been granted permission, and then rejected the invitation, Hoyer weighed in again: Requiring Tlaib “to sign a letter in some way limiting her actions while in Israel and/or the West Bank” was “disrespectful” not only of Tlaib “but of the United States Congress as well,” he fumed. “To my knowledge, no Member of Congress has ever been asked to agree to preconditions in order to visit Israel.”
7. Undermining Israel’s own vital advocates
And if anyone doubts the concern that this episode is raising among America’s mainstream Israel-supporters and its Jewish organizational leaders, they need look no further than the aforementioned AIPAC and Conference of Presidents.
AIPAC, whose work is central to the vital, widespread support for Israel on Capitol Hill — and whose very existence depends on the capacity to maintain Israel as a bipartisan cause, and thus to draw support for a strong US-Israel relationship not only from among Jews but from Hispanics, African Americans and beyond — flatly slapped Israel down: “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,” it said in a statement. “We also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand.”
As for the Conference, organized American Jewry’s key umbrella group — which has made it a strategic imperative to avoid any public daylight between its stances and Israel’s — after hosting Dermer’s explanatory phone call, it nonetheless declined to endorse the ban, or indeed even to stay silent, and instead expressed “reservations” over the repercussions of the move.
8. An Israeli opposition that hasn’t got a clue
Even in an era where the biggest news stories can disappear within a day or two, it is worth noting that the banning of the BDS-backers has made far more of a splash in the United States than in Israel. Even at its height on Thursday-Friday, it barely led news broadcasts here, and has since all but disappeared from view. It was far down the headlines on the Sunday night TV news. Israel’s biggest-selling daily Yedioth Ahronoth had nothing about it on its news pages on Monday.
Netanyahu is also blessed with a political opposition that, unerringly misdirecting its critical focus, has largely ignored the crisis. But a crisis it is, and one that will not quickly fade, in the crucial area of Israel as a bipartisan American cause.