Israel’s ban of Omar and Tlaib is a long-term mistake

Now with Tlaib and Omar’s planned visits barred or canceled, it brings greater controversy to all of these issues.

August 19, 2019 19:40
Israel’s ban of Omar and Tlaib is a long-term mistake

Time magazine featured Benjamin Netanyahu on its cover in July, as he became the country’s longest-serving prime minister. (photo credit: COURTESY TIME MAGAZINE)

Israel sparked controversy over its unprecedented announcement last week to deny entry to US Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib over their planned visit to Israel and Palestinian territories in the West Bank.

The decision to ban them came shortly after President Donald Trump tweeted that it would show “great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit.”

This reversal also came a month after Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer said that Tlaib and Omar would be welcomed in Israel.

In a sudden twist, news broke that Israel had approved a petition from Tlaib to visit her grandmother in the West Bank on humanitarian grounds, and approval she later rejected, canceling the visit. Omar, however, still appears to be banned entirely.

Since entering Congress this year, Tlaib and Omar have been plagued with controversy. Some of the ire they have drawn has been due to their staunch support for the movement to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel (BDS), which most Jews widely consider to be antisemitic for seeking Israel’s destruction under the guise of a social justice protest. For greater context, BDS has a loud supporter in former KKK grand wizard David Duke, so naturally it draws red flags when elected officials hold the same view.

There’s also no denying that Tlaib and Omar have faced contempt by several Republican politicians and commentators over being the first two Muslim women elected to Congress. For instance, the president has targeted them with a line of racist remarks on Twitter.

Now with Tlaib and Omar’s planned visits barred or canceled, it brings greater controversy to all of these issues.

One must ask though, is Netanyahu’s vision of Israel so feeble that it can’t tolerate intense public criticism?

Israel is a nation that has survived two Intifadas, countless wars, a deluge of rocket-fire and diplomatic isolation. So why is this what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chooses to back down on? Netanyahu’s biggest fear are two freshman congresswomen who at most would cause a week’s worth of press before returning home.

That doesn’t exactly exude strength.

It also sets a dangerous precedent for political opponents to be punished at the encouragement of their own national leaders. It’s politically tone-deaf and short-sighted.

In a single tweet, Trump has managed to damage the reputation of both the US and Israel on the world stage. All for what, a political talking point?

Some have described Omar and Tlaib’s planned trip as a “publicity stunt,” yet perhaps the bigger stunt is how Trump and Netanyahu have made a spectacle of a relatively insignificant matter.

After their visit they would have returned home and everyone would move on to the next news cycle. Instead, Trump and Netanyahu have now ensured that this incident will be an inflection point to be agonized over for years to come.

The move to ban two US members of Congress does nothing to keep Israel safe. Like most things involving Trump, it’s about supporting himself.

IT’S HARD not to see this move as part of a cynical ploy for Trump to win reelection in 2020 and to assist with Netanyahu’s second attempt to build a coalition in his upcoming re-vote in September. Both leaders face political turmoil with each entering challenging reelection campaigns.

Among major American Jewish organizations, this move has been widely condemned.

The consensus among groups like AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Federation of North America is that this is not only wrong, but endangers the future of the US-Israel relationship.

Former president Barack Obama’s ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, tweeted there is “zero harm in letting them come learn, see (even if they had an agenda). Reversal harms Israel’s standing in US, boosts BDS.”

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said their trip was planned as “nothing more than an effort to fuel the BDS engine.” By denying them entry, though, it fuels it even more.

Trump and Netanyahu tried to punish Omar and Tlaib for supporting BDS, but in doing so they handed BDS a major victory.

Trying to defeat BDS by mimicking its own tactics is a self-defeating strategy. Watching this play out has been painfully ironic.

The best counter to BDS is to have its supporters see Israel for themselves.

This is a turning point that will further alienate the two congresswomen from their political colleagues as well as the broader Jewish community, who they now probably view with skepticism. They are now treated as enemies of not one, but two countries. That’s not something that is easily mended.

To Omar’s credit, she had been working to repair her relationship with the Jewish community, recently joining the newly launched Black-Jewish Congressional Caucus from the American Jewish Committee. However, it’s hard to see that new initiative being enough to bridge the divide that’s already been made.

This moment will serve as a flashpoint. Trump is trying to turn Israel into a partisan issue. In combination with this ban, it’s the perfect fodder to amplify the voices of those who demonize Israel as being an illegitimate and undemocratic country.

To be clear: Israel is a democracy with vigorous support for public debate, which explains how a piece like this is able to be published. But with the direction Israel is going, its image is irrevocably tainted.

Donald Trump can brand himself as a friend to Israel, but he’s a bad friend.

He’s the kind of friend who pressures you to jump off a cliff and make otherwise bad decisions.

Good friends don’t endanger your reputation in exchange for boosting their own gain. That’s not friendship. That’s abuse. If this is what friendship looks like, you need new friends.

Both Israel and the US are in desperate need of competent moral leadership.

For Israelis, they’ll get to make that decision next month.

Peter Fox is a contributing writer to The Forward and Tablet Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @thatpeterfox.

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