Israel doesn't advance its case as a tolerant democracy or unwavering US ally by barring elected members of Congress from visiting because of their political views. This would be a shameful, unprecedented move. I urge Israel’s government to allow @IlhanMN and @RashidaTlaib entry.
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) August 15, 2019
Bahbah: Trump–Whose President, Are You?
By: Bishara Bahbah/Arab America Featured Columnist
Last week will go down in history as one of Israel’s worst weeks ever in its relationship with the United States dating back to its establishment in 1948.
For Israel, it was a terrible week that wreaked with unprecedented criticism from friend and foe over its decision to deny US Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota permission to visit Israel to perform their duties as duly elected members of the United States Congress.
Rep. Omar serves on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and is a member of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations while Rep. Tlaib serves on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, among others.
The visa denial promptly backfired in Israel’s face, as it did in Trump’s face, like a ticking time bomb that was ready to explode. The whole incident unraveled a pandora’s box of issues that Israel now wishes it had kept a lid on.
1. Trump – Whose President, are You?
As President of the United States, you would assume that Trump would take seriously his oath to work for and defend the people of the United States, its institutions and their interests. However, his tweet directed at Netanyahu has done just the opposite. In the tweet, Trump is telling a foreign country that “It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar & 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 in office.”
Seriously Mr. President?
Are you not instigating a foreign government against members of your own Congress? Are you not obstructing their ability to fulfill their congressional duties for which they were elected? These congresswomen have the right, actually the obligation, to go on fact-finding missions to other countries, no less Israel, the largest recipient of US aid.
Some have even suggested that this presidential interference and this obstruction in the ability of elected officials to carry out their duties is sufficient to cause for initiating impeachment procedures against Trump!
Joe Biden, a front-runner in the Democratic presidential primaries had this to say: “No leader of the free world should encourage democracy to deny entry to visitors based on the content of their ideas – even ideas they strongly object to.” While another Democratic front-runner, Kamala Harris, added that “Trump is playing politics as he weakens our global leadership.”
By targeting Tlaib and Omar, Trump wants the progressive wing of the Democratic party, presumably the “radicals,” to be the recognizable faces of the Democrats come the November 2020 elections.
2. Democrats Rallied Behind Both Omar and Tlaib
Democratic leaders, who have clashed with the progressive wing of the party that includes Omar and Tlaib over their anti-Israel stance and their support of BDS, rallied in force behind Omar and Tlaib. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi described Israel’s decision as “beneath the dignity of the great State of Israel.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer was furious. He said, “to my knowledge, no Member of Congress has ever been asked to agree to preconditions in order to visit Israel,” and that Israel’s handling of Tlaib was “not only disrespectful of Rep. Tlaib but of the United States Congress as well.”
Hoyer’s criticism is particularly significant because only the week before he had proudly led a delegation of 41 Democratic members of Congress to Israel. During that visit, Hoyer highlighted the party’s support of the Jewish state, opposed the BDS movement, and defended Netanyahu from accusations of racism. His anger over the Tlaib and Omar incidents shows that even very strong supporters of Israel are feeling betrayed by Netanyahu.
Leading Democratic frontrunners for the party’s 2020 nomination also criticized Israel’s decision. Bernie Sanders called Israel’s move “a sign of enormous disrespect to the elected leaders, the United States Congress, and to the principles of democracy.” While Kamala Harris took the opportunity to blast Israel calling its behavior “an affront to the United States. Open and engaged foreign relations are critical to advancing US interests.”
3. Republican Supporters Criticized Both Israel and Trump
Even some of Israel’s ardent Republican supporters criticized Israel. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida called Israel’s action against Omar and Tlaib a mistake. He added that “Being blocked is what they really hoped for all along in order to bolster their attacks against the Jewish state.”
Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman tweeted: “Not good. Israel should have been bigger than Trump here. And that’s not asking a lot.”
4. Provided Tlaib and Omar a Forum to Air their Grievances Against Israel
Once Israel’s decision was made public to deny their visas, both Congresswomen spared no time in criticizing Israel and Netanyahu for consistently resisting peace efforts, for restricting Palestinians’ freedoms, for limiting public knowledge of the brutal realities of the occupation, for aligning themselves with Islamophobic leaders like Trump, and for implementing “Trump’s Muslim ban.”
Omar’s role on the House Foreign Affairs Committee calls on her to conduct oversight of American foreign aid – a constitutional duty denied to her by the largest recipient of America’s largess.
Tlaib also tweeted that Israel’s decision “to ban a US Congressman is a sign of weakness b/c the truth of what is happening to Palestinians is frightening.”
On Monday, Omar and Tlaib held a press conference in Minnesota and issues statements regarding the controversy, see video below.
And here was Trump’s response on Tuesday:
5. Exposed Netanyahu’s Continued Meddling in US Politics and Insensitivity Toward American Jews
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has behaved as though Washington was his home base. In 2012, Netanyahu endorsed Republican nominee Mitt Romney – it is not the prerogative of a foreign leader to endorse a US political candidate. It is downright interference in US domestic affairs! Yet again and, in 2015, he had the chutzpah to travel to Washington, uninvited by President Barack Obama, to address a joint session of Congress to advocate against a sitting president’s foreign policy matter.
Since Trump’s election, Netanyahu has done everything to embrace a president who is considered by most as an anti-Semite and who is opposed and feared by the overwhelming majority of American Jews.
And, with one tweet from Trump, Netanyahu reversed himself after his ambassador to Washington had said that visas would be issued to the Congresswomen.
Netanyahu’s pandering to Trump has earned him the nickname of Trump’s lapdog. Admittedly, Trump has done much to please Netanyahu. He recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moved the US embassy to the city, and recognized Israel’s declared sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
Additionally, Netanyahu has no problem trampling American-Jewish sensitivities and his relationship with the US Democratic establishment. It appears that all that Netanyahu cares about right now is winning next month’s election and shoring up his dispirited right-wing base.
6. Revealing the True Nature of Israel as a Democracy
Rep. Omar stated, “the irony of the ‘only democracy’ in the Middle East making such a decision is that it is both an insult to democratic values and a chilling response to a visit by government officials from an allied nation.”
While Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, tweeted that: “Israel doesn’t advance its case as a tolerant democracy or unwavering US ally by barring elected members of Congress from visiting because of their political views. This would be a shameful, unprecedented move.”
Democratic Rep. David Cicilline from Rhode Island lamented Israel’s decision in yet another tweet. He said: “This is a grave mistake by the Israeli government. Democracy is about accepting that others don’t always share your vision and respecting the right to disagree.”
7. Pro-Israel Groups Criticized Israel’s “Unprecedented” Decision
Recognizing the damage that will befall Israel from this “unprecedented” move, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) voiced its criticism over Netanyahu’s decision. AIPAC stated that no matter what the political views of each congressman might be, it believes that “every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand.” AIPAC deems that barring these two congresswomen would significantly damage Israel’s relationship with members of the Democratic party in the United States.
The Jewish Democratic Council of America urged the government of Israel to reject Trump’s unprecedented and ill-advised recommendation to deny entry to Tlaib and Omar.
Writing in Haaretz, Ausher Pfeffer observed that “the decision is bad for the relationship between Israel, the Democratic Party and the large majority of liberal American Jews who vote for them, as can be seen in the wide range criticism.”
Democratic Jewish lawmaker, Dean Philips, warned that “barring any member of the United States Congress from entering Israel would set a damaging precedent for a free and democratic nation and one of our most important allies in the world.”
Historically, there was one incident in 1975 when Congressman Henry Waxman was banned from entering Saudi Arabia after listing his Jewish background on his visa application. The State Department intervened at the time in order to ensure all members of Congress could conduct business on behalf of the government, and Waxman was allowed in.
Alas! Where was the State Department in this case? Probably, cheering for the president!
8. Israel’s Actions are Bound to Hurt US-Israel Relations and Potentially US Aid
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, one of Israel’s strongest advocates on the Hill, called Israel’s moved “a sign of weakness, not strength. It will only hurt the US-Israel relationship and support for Israel in America. No democratic society should fear open debate. Many strong supporters of Israel will be deeply disappointed in this decision…”
Rep. Justin Amash, who recently abandoned the Republican party, said that Israel should have stood up to Trump and allowed the visit. “Nobody has to agree with their opinions, but it will inevitably harm US-Israeli relations if members of Congress are barred from the country.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders went further and suggested that Israel should not receive foreign aid from the United States if it denies entry to Reps. Omar and Tlaib. In an interview on MSNBC, Sen. Sanders added, “And if Israel doesn’t want members of the United States Congress to visit their country to get a firsthand look at what going on … maybe [Netanyahu] can respectfully decline the billions of dollars that we give to Israel.”
Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin tweeted that “No member of Congress should visit Israel until all members of Congress are welcome.”
9. Politicized Support for Israel
While it used to be that any criticism of Israel was sacrosanct, that is clearly not the case anymore. Halie Sofer, the executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council fears that “barring members of Congress from visiting Israel, where they can see facts on the ground with their own eyes, is counterproductive and plays into President Trump’s goal of politicizing support for Israel to the detriment of the US-Israel relationship.”
While a senior Democratic staffer stated bluntly that “Trump and Netanyahu have totally politicized the US-Israeli relationship, and Democrats can today very easily condemn and criticize Netanyahu without losing any support from the Jewish community, where he is deeply unpopular.”
Will Someone Pay the Price?
According to recent press reports, about a dozen Democratic members of Congress, including senior Jewish members, are considering action against Israel’s ambassador to the United States as well as the US ambassador to Israel for their roles in Israel’s decision to bar Reps. Tlaib and Omar from entering Israel. They are discussing ways to communicate their “deep lack of confidence and trust” in both Ron Dermer and David Friedman.
The group is weighing issuing a statement of no confidence in Israel’s ambassador, Dermer, and opening an inspector general investigation into Friedman’s conduct.
The Democratic lawmakers include Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel of New York and Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey of New York.
Many Democrats have viewed Dermer skeptically since 2015 when as a top confidant of Netanyahu, he orchestrated the prime minister’s controversial address to Congress targeting then-President Barack Obama’s nuclear talks with Iran.
Democrats are also concerned over Dermer’s handling of Tlaib’s visa request and were angered after the Israelis released Omar and Tlaib’s planned itinerary and a letter from Tlaib in a public justification of their refusal to issue the visas. That action raised trepidations over whether US lawmakers can trust their communications with Israel’s embassy will remain private going forward.
As for Friedman, the Democrats are considering action against the ambassador who issued a public statement defending Israel’s decision on the visa issue citing Israel’s laws against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Both Tlaib and Omar support the BDS movement.
Ambassador Friedman is accused of breaking a precedent of failing to stand up for members of Congress. A congressional source stated that “Committees can make it very difficult for ambassadors to do their jobs if he makes it difficult for our members to do our jobs.”
In short, the winners from this whole ordeal are unquestionably Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. They have gained publicity and points for being brave and standing up for Netanyahu and Trump without even landing in Israel.
Their trip could have been a potential minefield. Every word uttered would have been scrutinized. Every person they would have met with could have been a potential terrorist. And, they could have been potentially humiliated by the Israeli security forces.
But think about it, Omar and Tlaib got to stay home. They avoided being potentially humiliated by Israeli security forces and accused of being associated with terrorists. They gained the sympathy of having been unduly victimized because of who they are and what they stand for.
Prof. Bishara Bahbah was the editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem based “Al-Fajr” newspaper between 1983-84. He was a member of the Palestinian delegation to the Peace Talks on Arms Control and Regional Security. He taught at Harvard and was the associate director of its Kennedy School’s Institute for Social and Economic Policy in the Middle East.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab America.