Rashida Tlaib's trip to Israel, scheduled for Saturday, shrouded in mystery

Won't be first Congressional trip to “occupied territories;' following similar visit in 2016, congressman called settlers 'termites'

August 15, 2019 04:47
3 minute read.
Democratic US congressional candidate Rashida Tlaib before Election Day in Michigan, 2018.

Democratic US congressional candidate Rashida Tlaib before Election Day in Michigan, 2018.. (photo credit: REUTERS/REBECCA COOK)

US Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) sent a “You are invited” notice to her colleagues in May inviting them to join her on a “Congressional Delegation to Occupied Territories in Palestine” that was to run from August 17 to August 22.

It is now two days before the trip, yet nobody is saying whether it is happening. Tlaib’s office is not saying, nor is the office of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), who also indicated that she would be joining the trip.
The US Embassy in Jerusalem said it has no information about the visit, and directed all inquiries to the offices of the congresswomen.

The Foreign Ministry said it knows nothing about the visit. The Palestinian Authority offices in Ramallah are refusing to give any details of meetings planned, and said there is – so far – no scheduled meeting with PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

The Prime Minister’s Office would not say whether it was contacted about setting up a meeting. And the House Ethics Committee in Washington, which must approve all trips abroad that are paid for by private entities, would not say – as a matter of policy – whether the trip has been approved.

In the meantime, the group that Tlaib put on her invitation as the organization that would “host” the trip – the Humpty Dumpty Institute – has since backed out, with its executive director, Joe Merante, saying that the institute decided to focus on domestic trips.

In the meantime, a spokesman for Tlaib told The Detroit News on July 23 that another sponsor has been found: the Forum for Cultural Engagement (FCE).

Merante, a former US diplomat who served as director of public diplomacy at the US Mission to the UN and as deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy to the Vatican, is also listed on that organization’s website as its co-director.

The FCE website says that its mission is “to partner with government entities, civic organizations and business leaders to develop sustainable culture-based leadership programs that promote intercultural dialogue, mutual understanding and conflict resolution.”

In addition, the FCE website lists a number of organizations as sponsors of its programs, including JPMorgan Chase & Co., NYU Abu Dhabi, Yale University and Pfizer. It also lists a dozen groups in Israel and the West Bank as partners, including Al-Najah University (Nablus), America House Jerusalem (Jerusalem), American Language Center (Jerusalem), Dar Al-Fonon, Askar refugee camp (Nablus), King Abdullah Cultural Center (Jerusalem) and UNRWA School for Girls (Wehdat).

If the trip does materialize, it would not be the first congressional trip to the West Bank.

The Humpty Dumpty Institute co-sponsored – along with a stridently anti-Israeli NGO called MIFTAH, led by PLO official Hanan Ashrawi – a trip for five congressmen here in 2016.

One of those representatives, Hank Johnson (D-Georgia), then returned to the US and – during a speech to a pro-BDS group in Philadelphia a couple of months later – likened settlers to termites. He later apologized for that characterization.

In an interview with the Atlanta Jewish Times, Johnson said that trip “was a trip to Palestine; we just came through Israel and went directly to Palestine and stayed there I think four or five days.”

The other congressmen on that trip – all Democrats – were Luis Gutierrez (Illinois), Dan Kildee (Michigan), Mark Pocan (Wisconsin) and Matt Cartwright (Pennsylvania).

In last month’s anti-BDS House resolution that passed by a margin of 398-17, with five abstentions and 12 people not voting, Pocan joined Tlaib and Ilhan in voting against; Johnson abstained; and both Kildee and Cartwright voted for the measure. Gutierrez is no longer in the House.

The New York Daily News in May listed MIFTAH as a co-sponsor for the Tlaib trip as well.

Israeli officials have held a number of meetings over the last several months to prepare for a possible Tlaib/Omar trip and develop a strategy as to how to deal with it. Last month, Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer made clear that Israel would not bar the entry of the two congresswoman, who are BDS advocates, into Israel, even though there is a law on the books that would make such a move possible.

“Out of respect for the US Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America, we would not deny entry to any member of Congress into Israel,” he said.

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