In an abrupt about face, Israel announced it would deny entry to Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib who were planning to travel to Israel as their parallel to a prior AIPAC-sponsored bipartisan congressional junket. It was only a month ago that the Israeli Ambassador had made a rare public declaration stating that the two members of “the squad” would be allowed entry despite their criticism of and opposition to Israeli policies. But that decision was reversed after Trump himself personally intervened to lobby Israel to deny entry to the two Democratic Representatives and publicly tweeting “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!”
This is yet another play to the white nationalist base that Trump has based his re-election strategy around. In addition, his race-baiting provides a convenient distraction from the growing effort to do something to curb gun violence and the increasing worries about a looming recession which prompted an 800 point drop in the Dow, Trump’s favorite yardstick for measuring the health of the economy.
In addition, it is yet another instance where Trump is abusing the powers of his office to prevent Congress from executing its constitutionally mandated role of oversight. Bizarrely, when you think about it, Israel is still one of the top recipients of US foreign aid despite being a well developed economy. Yet Trump is trying to block these two members of Congress from seeing whether that money is spent effectively simply because they are Muslim women, one of whom is Palestinian.
After enormous condemnation from both Democrats and Republicans and even most supporters of Israel, as well as a special plea from Democrats to let her see her grandmother in the West Bank, Israel relented and apparently will let Tlaib in the country as long as she agreed to muzzle her free speech rights to talk about BDS.
This story is primarily about Trump’s racism. But it was also a test for Israel and Netanyahu as well as Democrats. It should also be a test for Republicans but, other than offering a few words of criticism, we know they will do nothing. Of course, Netanyahu, ever the political opportunist, probably leapt at the chance to accede to Trump’s wishes as it would bolster his support on the far right in the run-up to the next election in September where he will need every vote imaginable to not only be able to build a governing coalition but also keep himself from being indicted. More importantly, as Peter Beinart writes, Netanyahu “also understood that if Omar and Tlaib brought the American media with them to the West Bank, they might begin to puncture the cocoon that he and his American Jewish allies have worked so hard to build. That cocoon shields both American Jews and American politicians from Palestinian reality”.
In my opinion, which obviously counts for nothing, Democrats should truly be ashamed to continue with this trip without Omar. It is beyond insulting that a member of Congress is being blocked from entry from one of our purported strongest allies simply to fuel the partisan political aspirations of both Trump and Netanyahu. And the fact that that the member is a Muslim and a Democrat should cause even greater outrage. A partisan attack like this against one Democrat should be seen as a partisan attack against them all. Yet the idea that Democrats would pull out of this and upcoming trips unless Omar is included seems never to have even been considered. To make a blunt analogy, Democrats criticizing the Israeli decision but then traveling without Omar is like sitting at the whites-only counter talking about the evils of segregation.
The larger point is that this is not the first time that Israel, under Netanyahu, has intervened in American politics solely to benefit the Republicans and damage Democrats. In 2012, Netanyahu appeared in an ad for Mitt Romney, declaring, “The world needs American strength, not apologies”. In 2015, Netanyahu intervened in the ongoing US domestic political debate about whether to engage Iran in nuclear talks. At the request of congressional Republicans who never consulted the Obama White House, Netanyahu gave a partisan speech to a joint session of Congress accusing Obama of guaranteeing that Iran will get a nuclear bomb and attempted to turn the general pro-Israel feeling in the US against Obama. In 2016, despite his close relationship with Kushner, Netanyahu was wary of Trump and at least publicly tried to appear neutral, something made far easier by the fact that Clinton was very pro-Israel as well. But, while Netanyahu was seemingly neutral, the Trump campaign sought to enlist Israeli firms closely connected to Israeli intelligence for illicit social media activities and intelligence gathering in order to defeat both Trump’s Republican primary challengers and Clinton herself. And now, Israel is willing to bar two members of Congress solely to benefit Trump in his partisan political attacks on Democrats.
At some point, Democrats need to ask themselves why they are supporting a foreign government that consistently intervenes in US domestic politics to their detriment. That question applies no matter what one may think of what Israel is doing in the West Bank and Gaza or to Palestinians inside Israel. Yes, we all know that there is and has always has been strong support for Israel within the Democratic party. And, although Omar expressed it in an arguably offensive manner, we also know that Democrats get a lot of money from pro-Israeli groups. And, yes, we all know that it has been a long term goal of Republicans to turn support for Israel into a partisan issue in the hope of peeling off some Democratic voters. But at some point Democrats need to think long and hard about why they are supporting a country that actively intervenes against the Democratic party in US domestic affairs. Now, that issue may dissipate somewhat if and when Netanyahu no longer leads Israel. But it is still a question Democrats need to answer.
Originally published at https://thesoundings.com on August 16, 2019.