I have been astounded as to how much has been written, how many words have been spoken, passionately arguing the issue of whether or not it was a good move for Israel to block entry to those Israel-hating, BDS- supporting members of Congress, Ilhan Omar (MN-5th) and Rashida Tlaib (MI-13th).
It is a week since I’ve posted, but I’ve been tracking the news. And now, as I sit down to write, what stands out for me are the political complexities underlying the situation.
Let me be clear: I consider these women to be my enemies, and the enemies of my nation. But what they managed to create was a situation in which there would be fall-out no matter how we handled them. Some analysts called it a “lose-lose” situation for Israel.
The primary question was one of how best to minimize their toxicity.
At the very same time there has been an overlay of other, related issues that cannot be ignored.
Last month, when Omar and Tlaib revealed plans for a private trip to Israel, Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer issued a statement indicating that, although there is a law on the books in Israel that allows blocking entry of anyone actively supporting BDS, the freshmen congresswomen would be allowed to visit: “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.”
At that point, I had the impression that Dermer had recommended this action to our prime minister but that Netanyahu himself had approved the decision. This apparently was not the case.
When the approval had been given for them to come, there was a great deal of chatter here about how to expose Omar and Tlaib to various situations in Israel that might modify their thinking. I considered most of the ideas that were floated to be exceedingly unrealistic in terms of what their receptivity would be. But the point is that broadly speaking there was some sense that they would be doing fact finding.
I myself saw the decision as not very palatable, but recognized that there was concern that blocking entry of US congresspersons – which is no small matter – might generate very unwelcome tensions with American officialdom at a sensitive time.
The women were due to arrive this past Saturday. But on Thursday it was disclosed that they would not be allowed to enter Israel after all. That change was announced formally by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (Shas), but approval for this decision clearly came from the top.
Very shortly before the announcement was made, President Trump had tweeted (emphasis added):
“It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit. They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds. Minnesota and Michigan will have a hard time putting them back in office. They are a disgrace!”
Netanyahu, who was then accused of doing the president’s bidding in blocking Omar and Tlaib, immediately countered that the itinerary of the Congresswomen had just been received, and was the cause for the turnaround. It showed that “the Congresswomen’s sole intention was to harm Israel…
“For instance: they listed the destination of their trip as Palestine and not Israel, and unlike all Democratic and Republican members of Congress who have visited Israel, they did not request to meet any Israeli officials, either from the government or the opposition…
“In addition, the organization that is funding their trip is Miftah, which is an avid supporter of BDS, and among whose members are those who have expressed support for terrorism against Israel.”
It was reported, as well, that the two Muslim Congresswomen wanted to go up on the Temple Mount to pray at al Aksa mosque, accompanied by representatives of the Palestinian Authority. We just had violence on the Mount when Muslims protested the right of Jews to be there, and the Congresswomen’s presence in the company of PA officials would have been a direct provocation intended to provide confirmation of PA control of the Mount.
But perhaps the sponsorship of Miftah, founded and headed by the perpetually hostile Hanan Ashrawi, best tells us what this planned visit was all about. This organization regularly accuses Israel of “massacres,” “apartheid,” and “summary executions” of Palestinian youth.
Omar and Tlaib would have returned home as “witnesses” to the horrors of the “occupation,” and the suffering of the poor Palestinian Arabs at the hands of Israelis, and would have recounted their stories to progressives – especially young progressive – eager for information about the “evils” of Israel.
“There is no country in the world that respects the US and the American Congress more than Israel,” prime minister now argued. “As a free and vibrant democracy, Israel is open to critics and criticism, with one exception: Israeli law prohibits the entry into Israel of those who call for and work to impose boycotts on Israel, as do other democracies that prohibit the entry of people who seek to harm the country.”
explained that when Dermer had indicated approval for the two to come, it was before their itinerary had been secured, and so his response at that time had been appropriate. We can take this as acknowledgement that Dermer had acted unilaterally.
In the wake of the policy change, Dermer participated in a phone call with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, in which he stated. “We were not pressured by the Trump administration; this is a sovereign decision that Israel has to make.” He, too, spoke of what had been determined regarding the projected visit.
Those of us on the right here were relieved with this reversal of policy. Best keep them out. And no need to justify our decision to do so, either: this in no way diminishes the vibrancy of our democracy.
As Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely (Likud) pointedly observed, “We won’t allow those who deny our right to exist in this world to enter Israel. In principle this is a very justified decision.”
Every nation has the right to block entry to those who intend it harm, nor is it unusual for visa applications to be denied. In fact, we find instances in which a prominent political leader has been prevented from entering a nation even though he represented no threat to that nation.
The US blocked the entry of MK Michael Ben Ari for his “radical” views. Narenda Modi was denied a US visa when he was opposition leader and not yet prime minister of India because he allegedly supported Hindu extremists during Hindu-Muslim riots in his home state in 2002, which would have been “a violation of religious freedom.” The UK blocked entry by Gert Wilders, a Dutch MP who is staunchly anti-Islamist and was thus labelled Islamophobic.
Blocking Omar and Tlaib from entering was hardly the end of the story, however. For they turned to using that block to their advantage. I was uneasy about this from the get-go, as were others. Instead of serving as the witnesses to our “mistreatment” of Palestinian Arabs, they would be able to talk about how they were not allowed in because we were afraid of what they would see.
What surprised me was the strength of the reaction of some centrists, both here and in the US.
One centrist Zionist in the US who routinely speaks on behalf of Israel wrote an op-ed which said, in essence: Thanks a lot, Israel. I know you have nothing to hide, but you have now made it much harder to convince people that this is so.
While Times of Israel editor David Horovitz, a left-tilting centrist here in Israel, saw the damage of banning the two Congresswomen as greater than would have been the damage had they come.
“…Tlaib and Omar scored a victory with implications far more damaging than their planned, banned provocative visit…”
And, I confess, I did a bit of head scratching at these expressions of distress. WHY should it be so difficult to explain that it was legitimate to black Omar and Tlaib from entering Israel, when there is the evidence of their trip being planned by the virulently anti-Israel Miftah, and more?
Of course, not every commentator had this perspective:
Law professor Eugene Kontorovich who heads the International Law Department at the Jerusalem think tank Kohelet, refused to take this seriously. He tweeted (emphasis added):
“So the current mock outrage and disingenuous claims that this is not how allies treat each other is really just another double standard against Israel.”
While Aaron Lerner, director of IMRA, wrote:
“Israel is going to endure a news cycle getting slammed for refusing to allow in BDS advocates Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib. One news cycle.
“If they visited we would have suffered a nightmare of a series of controversial incidents, each with its own news cycle….”
For a while I was not sure Aaron was going to be correct but I am now growing more confident that indeed he is.
The two Congresswomen held a press conference after their entry into Israel had been blocked. They vilified Israel, pushing all of the buttons they hoped would resonate with progressives:
“…denying entry to duly elected officials of friendly countries is not consistent with being an ally, and denying millions of people freedom of movement or expression or self-determination is not compatible with being a democracy.”
“Fortunately,” said Omar, “we in the United States have a constructive role to play. We give Israel more than $3 billion in aid every year, based on it being an important ally in the region and the ‘only democracy in the Middle East.’”
Jerusalem should “stop the expansion of settlements on Palestinian land, and ensure full rights for Palestinians if we are going to give them aid.” (Emphasis added)
Well, it did not take long for Lindsay Graham (R-SC) to respond to this. He agreed, he said, that there should be an adjustment in funds given to Israel: “It’s time to provide MORE assistance to Israel for its missile defense program.” (Emphasis added)
And then Rashida Tlaib failed to score her point in another regard: Prime Minister Netanyahu had made the offer to allow her in, as she has a grandmother of over 90 in PA controlled Beit Ur al-Fouqa. The proviso was that she not utilize this visit for promoting BDS. Tlaib sent the requisite request to Interior Minister Deri, who approved the visit.
Then, criticized for agreeing to the required terms, she decided not to see her grandmother after all, tweeting:
“When I won, it gave the Palestinian people hope that someone will finally speak the truth about the inhumane conditions. I can’t allow the State of Israel to take away that light by humiliating me & use my love for my city to bow down to their oppressive & racist policies.
Commented Deri: “Apparently her hate for Israel overcomes her love for her grandmother.” We made a humanitarian gesture and she – revealing herself – chose to spit on us for it. This is something everyone should know.
Lastly, I had wanted to address the issue of whether Netanyahu reversed himself on the visas for Omar and Tlaib because of pressure from Trump. This is a big and important question, with many ramifications.
There is a broad consensus that it indeed was the case that the change in policy came at Trump’s behest. But I am not prepared to take a stand on the reasons for Netanyahu’s decision.
I have information from a highly reliable source that it actually was the case that Israel came into possession of the itinerary late in the day, and that it was more horrific than anything that had been expected. This was not an invented excuse.
Who knows? Maybe Netanyahu and his advisors said, Oi vey, what have we done? And then found the backbone to announce the reversal because of Trump’s prodding.
And maybe Dermer was telling it straight when he said we were not pressured by the Trump administration.
I would prefer to return to this issue, and what Trump is attempting to do, in my next posting…
I would be inclined to also address some of the outrageous charges made by Tlaib and Omar, for the record, lest there be any understandings. But this I cannot promise – as surely the vast majority of my readers know full well how to respond to her. And there is so much other news that requires attention.