A few weeks ago after some apparent internal deliberations, the Israeli Government announced that it would not deny U.S. Congressional Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib permission to visit Israel and the West Bank during the August congressional recess. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu objected to the fact that they supported the anti-Israel BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement, but was prepared not to reject their request to visit Israel. Netanyahu recognized that blocking the visit of Members of Congress would undermine Israel’s democratic values and have negative consequences for U.S.-Israel relations. The Netanyahu Government has now announced that it is reversing its previous decision and denying the two Members entry to Israel.
Netanyahu’s change in positions has been motivated presumably by two reasons. The first relates to his desperate fight to win re-election and the second concerns his continuing need to satisfy all of President Trump’s wishes.
With less than five weeks before the Israeli elections, Bibi is having serious problems with political factions on his right. There are indications that voters who previously would have supported his Likud Party on September 17 believe that the Prime Minister will make concessions to his some of the more moderate parties in order to form a new Government. The more extreme parties led now by Avigdor Lieberman (head of the Yisrael Beitanu Party) and Ayelet Shaked (head of the New Right Party) have even suggested that at this time they would not join a new Netanyahu led coalition. In order to placate their voters and try to bring them back to the Likud, Bibi saw a opportunity to look tough by denying Omar and Tlaib entry.
This cynical political move will only further alienate moderate Israelis who believe this decision is totally antithetical to the open society and democratic values which Israel professes to embrace. Two Members of Congress treated with respect–not embraced—might actually have made some inroads among their BDS supporters in the States.
In 1994, Gerry Adams, the leader of the Sinn Fein Movement in Ireland, was admitted to the U.S. by the Clinton Administration. Issuance of Adams’ visa occurred despite the fact that Adams had blood on his hands for numerous violent incidents which he had reportedly orchestrated throughout the years in Ireland. In this case, no one is suggesting that Omar or Tlaib have a similar situation, yet they are being denied entry by Israel.
Second, Prime Minister Netanyahu appears to have been unable to resist his persistent groveling at the feet of Donald Trump. Both Omar and Tlaib had been part of the “squad” of four Members who Trump had singled out to be sent “back to their countries.” It has been reported that Trump urged Netanyahu not to admit the two Members, to which he has now apparently acceded. By acquiescing, Netanyahu has once again supported the President as well as Trump’s anti-immigrant followers.
It is hard to comprehend that Netanyahu does not understand the political consequences—in the long run—for Israel’s relations with the Democratic Party and with American Jews (who remain overwhelmingly Democratic). These two Democratic Members and their support for BDS was totally marginalized by the Democratic Party in Congress. This support for Israel and rejection of BDS was further underscored last week in Jerusalem by both the Republican as well as the Democratic congressional delegations led by Representatives Kevin McCarthy and Steny Hoyer.
In Washington and in their home districts there have been a number of Members and community leaders—both Jews and non-Jews—who have reached out and sought to build bridges to members of the “squad” on matters involving U.S.-Israel relations. Now, there undoubtedly will be repercussions in U.S. support for Israel among Democrats as well as among many American Jews.