by Mitchell Plitnick
In a sudden reversal, the Israeli government decided on Thursday to bar two members of Congress—Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN)—from entering Israel. This means that they also cannot enter the West Bank, which was where they intended to spend bulk of their time in Israel-Palestine. After announcing the ban on the two congresswomen, Israel said that Tlaib could visit her family in the West Bank if she agreed “not to participate in any BDS activities.”
The decision to bar entry to the congresswomen met with widespread condemnation in the United States, including by groups that normally march in lockstep with Israel. AIPAC, for example, said they disagree with Tlaib and Omar, of course, but “We also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand.” The American Jewish Committee said that “AJC believes that, out of two less-than-ideal options, neither of which was risk-free, Israel did not choose wisely by reversing its original decision [to allow Tlaib and Omar in].”
These were typical reactions from the center-right of the pro-Israel community in the U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), one of the most devoted Israel supporters in Congress, typified much of the congressional response, saying “No democratic society should fear an open debate. Many strong supporters of Israel will be deeply disappointed in this decision, which the Israeli government should reverse.”
Steny Hoyer (D-MD), the House Majority Leader who just returned from leading a congressional delegation of dozens of members to Israel and who is as lock-step a pro-Israel voice as any Democrat, said, “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. 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.”
What was so interesting about these responses, beyond the unusual tone of rebuke for Israel, is the seemingly deliberate decision not to blame President Donald Trump. After all, Israel had made it quite clear that they intended to admit Tlaib and Omar, and then reversed its decision quickly after a tweet from Trump, which read: “It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit. They hate Israel and all Jewish people, and there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds.”
The timing could not have been coincidental. It doesn’t necessarily mean that Israel reversed itself at Trump’s behest, but the president clearly influenced the decision to some degree. The proximity of the tweet to the Israeli reversal renders any other conclusion unlikely.
One would think that Democrats would say something about this. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi mentioned Trump’s insults to the congresswomen, but did not tie his words to the Israeli reversal. But for the most part, Israel was the target, not Trump.
Later Thursday, an explanation surfaced, when Israeli ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer made his own statement about the reversal. Just last month, Dermer stated 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.” Clearly, this decision left him with considerable egg on his face. Now, Dermer said that “We were not pressured by the Trump administration to do this and this is a sovereign decision that Israel has to make.”
That was an obvious lie. Trump’s language, accusing Israel of weakness for letting Tlaib and Omar in, made his wishes starkly clear and it’s no secret that Trump and some Democrats were talking with Netanyahu and Dermer in the days leading up to the reversal. In the end, the president got what he wanted. The Democrats and the center-right Jewish groups don’t want to get into a public battle against both Trump and Netanyahu at the same time.
Dermer’s stated reasons for the reversal don’t pass the smell test. According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), Dermer said their “itinerary listed the destination as Palestine, not Israel, and included no meetings with Israeli officials.” That’s true, but it also included no meetings with Palestinian officials either. The sole exception would have been Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, who facilitated the trip.
JTA’s report continued, “Dermer added that the congresswomen planned to meet with organizations promoting BDS, one of whose leaders has ties with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which is designated by the U.S. as a terror group. ‘The leadership of our country believes that this visit was designed solely with the intention of promoting BDS and they were gonna use this visit as platform to BDS activities,’ the ambassador said.”
That’s just absurd. To start with, the intent of Tlaib’s and Omar’s visit was clear from the start, so all of this was already known to the Israeli government. They were planning to meet with civil society leaders and representatives of Palestinian groups. Virtually all such groups and individuals support BDS—the very basis of the BDS movement is that it’s founded on a call from the full spectrum of Palestinian civil society. There is no evidence at all that the congresswomen were planning any “activities” of protest of any sort in their packed itinerary. The point about a leader with “ties to the PFLP” is probably a reference to Shawan Jabarin, the executive director of the most prominent Palestinian human rights organization, al-Haq. Jabarin did belong to a student group tied to the PFLP in the 1980s and was convicted in 1985 for recruiting for them, but that’s the extent of the substantiated charges against him. He had a travel ban imposed on him in 2006, with the court claiming he was still active with the PFLP, based on secret evidence that the court forbade Jabarin and his lawyers to see, for alleged “security reasons.”
There’s also some domestic Israeli politics in play here. Netanyahu wants to curry favor with Trump, especially now, when he is surely hoping that he can get another of Trump’s famous gifts—as he got when Trump cut off almost all aid to the Palestinians, moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and recognized the Golan Heights as Israeli territory—before the Israeli election in mid-September. But by itself, barring Tlaib and Omar is not that big a deal for him, as they are far less “notorious” in Israel than they are among Republicans and the “pro-Israel” groups in the United States.
But Interior Minister Aryeh Deri had his own reasons to bar Tlaib and Omar. According to the anti-BDS law, it is Deri who technically has the authority to decide whether a foreign citizen who supports BDS can or cannot enter Israel. In reality, of course, given the ramifications of the decision especially in a case like this, Netanyahu decides. Still, Deri’s voice is an important one in this decision.
It is probably no coincidence that on the same day Tlaib and Omar were barred, the Israeli attorney general received a recommendation that Deri be indicted on charges of corruption. Although the AG is not going to decide on whether to indict him until after the election, Deri—who has already served time in prison for corruption and came back from that to resume his position at the head of the Shas party—surely wanted to draw attention away from a public scandal that so resembled his past crimes. Moreover, Shas is consistently polling at the bottom of right wing parties and, while the polls don’t show it to be in danger of failing to qualify for the next Knesset, Deri can certainly use a bump to make sure that the party has a little more breathing room.
The combination of Deri in Israel and Trump in Washington is probably what led Netanyahu to change his mind, but it was Trump who really wanted this. It may be an instance where he should be careful what he wishes for.
Soon after Israel reversed its decision, Trump tweeted, “Representatives Omar and Tlaib are the face of the Democrat Party, and they HATE Israel!” If it wasn’t clear enough before, Trump, with his usual subtlety, informs us all that this is another part of his project to demonize “The Squad,” and to paint them as both anti-Israel and as representative of the entire Democratic party. It is this notion that motivated Trump to press Netanyahu to bar entry to the two congresswomen.
But even the Likud Party and its supporters understand that destroying what remains of Israel’s support in the Democratic party—support that is far from as iron-clad as it once was but is still considerable—does not serve their interest. Netanyahu and Dermer worked for years to make Israel a more Republican issue to diminish the pressure on the Jewish state to make concessions to the Palestinians. But they never wanted to turn the entire party against Israel, and still don’t. They understand that increasing numbers of Democratic voters are growing uncomfortable with Israel’s brazen defiance of international law and cruel violations of Palestinian human rights. They cannot afford to have the so-called “moderates” who are more open to pro-Israel lobbying and pro-Israel campaign contributions lose their patience with them as well.
Beyond that, even Republicans had to object to this move. Marco Rubio tweeted, “Denying them entry into Israel is a mistake. Being blocked is what they really hoped for all along in order to bolster their attacks against the Jewish state.” It is simply unacceptable for an ally—especially one that gets more foreign aid and diplomatic support than any other—to bar members of the U.S. Congress.
Trump, of course, cares about none of this. He has decided that his strategy will be to make “The Squad”—and especially its two Muslim members, Tlaib and Omar—the face of the Democratic party and ride what he expects to be a renewed wave of hate and bigotry to his second term in office. Ultimately, that’s why he pressed Netanyahu on this, and that’s why, despite all these objections, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar will be barred from entering Israel and the Palestinian territories it occupies.