Seizing an Opportunity
Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
There is a long-standing tradition that Members of Congress travel during congressional recesses to places that relate to areas which are germane to their committees’ legislative jurisdiction, their constituents’ interests, or their own concerns. These trips—especially foreign travel—used to be called congressional junkets and were widely abused by Members who traveled with their families to exotic places, on the Government’s tab, and expected to receive a red-carpet treatment wherever they appeared.
These trips place an enormous burden on U.S. Embassy staff in the country the Members visit. U.S. diplomats frequently need to cater to the whims and peculiarities of many exceedingly demanding Representatives and Senators. When Members travel as a group—known as a congressional delegation or codel—embassy staff frequently spent days trying to accommodate the guests who seek to do everything and see everyone within days. (Stories about these adventures are legion. They include a key congressional sub-committee chairman who demanded that the Ambassador find him someone with whom the Member could play tennis on the Embassy court at 7:00am—on Christmas morning.)
These codels also placed a very large burden on the Foreign Office of the host country. Ministry staff, who work on U.S. affairs within a Foreign Office, together with security staff, also need to comply with the interests and desires of these Members of Congress. They were required to arrange meetings with appropriate government officials, legislators, as well as opposition leaders. Members demand attention and Foreign Ministry officials are hard pressed not to comply with congressional requests. For the host country, complying with the quirks and demands from Members is de rigueur, lest its failure to do so would negatively impact on relations between their country and the U.S.
These requirements came to the fore because of the mini-flap—now resolved apparently—which occurred when the two Muslim women Representatives, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, announced that they intended to travel to Israel during the August recess. Omar is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Tlaib’s family is Palestinian and is a member of the House Oversight Committee.
Once they announced that they intended to visit Israel, sought to speak with Palestinian leaders and visit places on the West Bank, it was reported that Israel Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu favored denying them permission to visit Israel. Netanyahu was acting under a 2017 law passed by the Israeli Knesset by which the Israeli Government can forbid entry to people who support boycotting Israel. Both Omar and Tlaib are backers of the BDS movement and like students, artists, and activists who have been barred from entering, Netanyahu had the legal right to deny them entry.
The additional subtext to Bibi’s hesitation was the fact that these women were also two of the four Members who are part of the so-called “squad” of progressive Democrats who had been embroiled in a confrontation with the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and the Democratic leadership over the terms of the immigration bill. This intra-party debate escalated into an ugly racist confrontation created by the President, suggesting that these women—all U.S. citizens–return to their country. Netanyahu would have had a chance to curry favor with Trump, if he had held firm and denied them entry. At this point it seems clearer voices have prevailed in Israel.
This is not to suggest that their visit–especially now—will not present a diplomatic challenge for both the U.S. Embassy in Israel as well as the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Escorting these Members, providing them with proper security, and ensuring that their visit receives only a minimal push-back from the Israeli public will present a serious test for all participants.
The irony is that Israel had an opportunity to engage in a serious discussion with these Members. This might still occur but addressing controversial matters like BDS needs to be conducted in an official and serious manner. Slogans and tweets are not effective or constructive. If done correctly this visit might still be a productive beginning and not a confrontation.