Obeying the demands of US President Donald Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday banned a join trip by US representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar from visiting Israel and touring the West Bank.
Put simply, this was a major screw up, a tremendous own-goal by both Netanyahu, who made himself look like Trump’s subordinate, following his orders, while needlessly choosing sides in one of the nastiest partisan disputes in US politics. A note of advice to Netanyahu: Don't get dragged into your allies' bitter civil conflicts.
Tlaib will reportedly still be able to visit, although without Omar, after requesting Israel allow her to come on humanitarian grounds to visit her grandmother. Israel's Interior Ministry approved the request, although occupation authorities routinely deny Palestinians permission to travel for medical purposes from Gaza to the West Bank. Some of them die with their parents trapped behind Israeli barb wire.
In an earlier statement reacting to Thursday's ban announcement, Rep. Ilhan Omar expressed disappointment and lamented how Trump and Netanyahu seemed to be reflecting each other’s most authoritarian, racist, and undemocratic instincts. She said the ban would undermine the diplomatic relationship between Israel and the US, as well as efforts at peacemaking.
“Denying entry into Israel not only limits our ability to learn from Israelis but also to enter the Palestinian territories,” Omar said, adding that Netanyahu had “consistently resisted peace efforts, restricted the freedom of movement of Palestinians, limited knowledge of the brutal realities of the occupation and aligned himself with Islamophobes like Donald Trump.”
Netanyahu barring Tlaib and Omar's joint trip to Israel has already done plenty of damage, however, undermining a set of fragile falsehoods that the US-Israel relationship rests upon. Among them is the illusion that US support for Israel’s occupation is uniformly bipartisan, shared by Democrats and Republicans.
There are few “facts” left in US politics, but the closest thing DC has to “facts” are issues that garner bipartisan support, such as US support for Israel. Trump’s incessant pushing of partisan divides is imperilling this illusion. By tying Israel to Trump’s racist attacks on Omar and Tlaib, Netanyahu is making even tacit support for Israel’s occupation a risky gamble for Democrats, whose voters detest and despise Trump.
The illusion lets politicians “believe” the “fact” that Israel is the “only” “democracy” in the Middle East. As partisan divides in the US deepen, with Netanyahu’s help, those “facts” become harder to repeat in Washington, DC. Netanyahu did not just choose Trump’s Republican party, but Trump himself.
Trump’s political fortunes are now Netanyahu’s. The Israeli prime minister could win his election in September and watch the White House turn much colder to him, quickly, in January, 2021, under a new Democratic president. Just as Trump has tried to undo elements of President Barack Obama’s legacy, a Democratic president will seek nothing short of vengeance against Trump’s enablers.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who is running for the Democratic party’s nomination to face Trump in November 2020, told Netanyahu not to accept American military aid if he won’t let congress even see what Israel is doing with it. Sanders, who is Jewish, spent time on an Israeli kibbutz in his youth. He has embraced Omar and Tlaib as fellow members of the progressive caucus in congress.
“I wish I could tell you that I am shocked. I am not,” Sanders told Ali Velshi on MSNBC on Thursday night. “We have a president who is tragically a racist, who is a xenophobe, and who is a religious bigot. But the idea that a member of the United States Congress cannot visit a nation, which by the way we support to the tune of billions and billions of dollars, is clearly an outrage. And if Israel doesn’t want members of the United States Congress to visit their country to visit their country to get a first-hand look at what’s going on -and I’ve been there many, many times- but if he doesn’t want members to visit maybe he can respectfully decline the billions of dollars we give to Israel.”
At least one Israeli diplomat, speaking anonymously to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, expressed alarm over Netanyahu’s move.
“It won't damage our image, it will cause actual damage to our relations with the Democrats. Everyone understands that Democrats will return to power at some point, and this will be a decision that the party won’t forget,” the diplomat said on Thursday.
Even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, one of the most powerful pro-Israel lobbying groups in the US, expressed confusion at Netanyahu’s undercutting the enormous amounts of work over decades AIPAC has put into building support for Israel across party lines. Indeed, AIPAC just hosted an annual trip for congressional representatives to Israel, although few of those representatives felt the need to mention the junket on their Twitter feeds.
“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. We also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand,” AIPAC tweeted.
Similar sentiments from both Republican and Democratic leaders trickled out over Thursday, some insisting that Tlaib and Omar should be offered the chance to see Israel. The reactions even from Israel’s supporters expressed a mild sense of bewilderment that Netanyahu and Trump would do something that undermined Israel’s own diplomatic leverage in the US.
Netanyahu pretended like he was in control, but Trump’s role in the whole affair overshadowed his. Netanyahu stated that Omar and Tlaib’s support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a worldwide protest against Israeli human rights violations, disqualified them from entry.
Netanyahu’s statement demonstrated an enormous lack of self-awareness, accusing Tlaib and Omar of being the ones guilty of partisanship. That lack of self-awareness is a symptom of the fortress mentality Netanyahu’s nationalistic, racist politics foster.
“We received their itinerary only a few days ago, and it made clear that they are planning a trip whose entire purpose was supporting the boycott and eroding Israel's legitimacy,” Netanyahu said. “Thus, for example, they defined the destination of their trip as 'Palestine' and not as 'Israel,' and in contrast with all other Democratic and Republican members of Congress until now, they refrained from requesting any meeting with an Israeli official, either in the government or in the opposition."
Trump, as ever, was less subtle.
“They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds,” the president tweeted, continuing a pattern of lying attacks on Tlaib, a representative from a district outside Detroit, Michigan, and Omar, who represents a district in Minnesota. Both places are home to hundreds of thousands of Muslim-Americans, many of them refugees.
Tlaib, who is Palestinian-American, was born in Michigan, home to a large community of Arab Americans. Omar was born in Somalia, and came to Minnesota as a child refugee, later becoming a US citizen. Trump had recently told Tlaib and Omar, along with their progressive peers New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley, both born in the US, “to go back” and “fix” the “corrupt” countries they “come from.”
She doesn’t even want Tlaib to be able to visit the place he told her to go back to.
Neither Trump nor Netanyahu, however, seems to worry whether his own racist “go back” tweet, or their barring Tlaib from even seeing the West Bank, as acts that delegitimize Palestine out of existence. Why would they worry? Delegitimizing Palestinian existence is their end goal.
The Israeli Interior Ministry had previously decided to let Omar and Tlaib go ahead with their tour. However, the ministry routinely bars other, less high profile individuals, including leftist American Jewish activists, detaining them when they land in Tel Aviv and putting them on planes home. The two lawmakers were to have arrived on Friday.
US Ambassador to Israel David M. Friedman issued a statement that accused the congresswomen of waging "economic warfare" on Israel with their support of BDS, and endorsed Israel's move as it would the prohibition of someone carrying "conventional weapons." Like Netanyahu, he accused them of refusing to see Israel's "robust and vibrant democracy."
As long as Palestinians live under military occupation, Israel itself cannot be a robust and vibrant democracy. In the same way, the United States could not call itself a republic, truly, until black people and women defeated discriminatory laws that prohibited them from voting and participating in civil society. The struggle to preserve those rights continues.
The US still wrestles with how, or whether, to extend voting rights to vulnerable people. Netanyahu has sided with Trump to achieve a dubious, short-term political gain, and shown himself to endorse a vile brand of American racism and white supremacy. The victims of those scourges, who are Americans of all shades, backgrounds, and creeds, will remember Netanyahu’s choice long after Trump leaves the office.