The Washington Post reports, “Caught between the opposing views of President Trump and Democratic leaders, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reversed himself on Thursday and decided to prohibit Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., from visiting Israel during a trip scheduled to start Sunday.” While the government originally announced it would admit the pair, the call from President Donald Trump to exclude American lawmakers, an outrageous and unprecedented stop, “immediately opened up a new battle between Netanyahu and Democrats, who had privately warned that such a decision would be unprecedented and inconsistent with Israel’s claims of tolerance and openness.”
The problem arises from a recently passed law that would bar foreign nationals who support any boycott of Israel from receiving entry visas. This in and of itself was an infringement on the Israeli tradition of vigorous public debate, but with elections upcoming in September Netanyahu is scrambling to ingratiate himself further with the far right. Before Wednesday however, “Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer said the two congresswomen would be allowed to visit Israel ‘out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America.’” So much for that “respect.” (The Israeli embassy did not respond to a request for comment.)
The Post reported that earlier “House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., took the issue up with Israeli officials on Wednesday on behalf of the Democratic leadership, but congressional aides said it remained unclear if his discussions had any impact.” Hoyer is among Israel’s most devoted friends in the U.S. Congress. To rebuff a direct plea from him would be extraordinary.
The ban is a stunning, unprecedented step, one that signals Israel, long a bastion of democracy in the Middle East, cannot tolerate criticism — even from nationals of its closest ally. For Netanyahu it sends the message that he is Trump’s puppet, willing to damage the long-term relationship with the United States to assuage the ego of a president who is in a political tailspin.
“This reversal is counterproductive to say the least and gives a victory to the BDS Movement. All Members of Congress would benefit from visiting Israel and seeing the diversity of the people and richness of the culture,” says Aaron Keyak, former head of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “This action also sets a dangerous precedent for the many other countries — many led by dictators and ruthless thugs — that US elected officials visit.’” He adds that this is “a painful moment for those of us who care about a strong U.S.-Israel relationship and fight for the cause of peace.”
He was not alone, according to multiple sources. Heads of major Jewish organizations had been on the phone with the U.S. ambassador to Israel imploring Israel not to take this step. According to the leader of one such group, the leader’s group had been urging the Israeli government to stick by the original decision to let the congresswomen in, while being under no illusion about the congresswomen’s views. The potential political and reputational costs of not letting them in might be even higher than of letting them in, the leader acknowledged.
The decision to exclude them likely will, American Jewish leaders recognize, incite the BDS movement and create a further schism with Democrats in Congress. It will continue the process, exacerbated by Trump and Netanyahu, of making support for Israel a partisan issue, something both sides have long tried to avoid.
Publicly these groups treaded carefully.
According to a source familiar with the Israeli government’s thinking, the Israelis objected to the congresswomen’s “one-sided” itinerary with included multiple stops in the Palestinian territories even as the government was discouraging Israeli groups from meeting with them. If that’s the rationale, the Netanyahu government is more short-sided and politically tone deaf than we feared. Rather than try to broaden the perspective of Israel’s critics Netanyahu is pushing them into an ever-more radical position.