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August 18, 2019 5:15 am

The Tlaib-Omar Trainwreck: An Early Assessment

avatar by Alexander Joffe


Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) shares a fist bump with Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) in Washington, DC, April 10, 2019. Photo: Reuters / Jim Bourg.

The last-minute Israeli decision to ban US members of Congress and prominent BDS supporters Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar is the culmination of a drama set into motion several weeks ago when their trip was first announced. It represents a bad outcome of a simple, predictable trap set by the two and their supporters. The episode also depicts the dysfunctional condition of Israeli and American politics, and the relationship between the two.

The trip was announced in July after Tlaib and Omar refused to participate in the now traditional Israel trip organized by AIPAC. The matter was initially subject to much speculation and conflicting statements from Israeli officials about whether the two would be denied entry, with the conventional wisdom being that they would be admitted.

But from the beginning, it was apparent that Palestinian-American Tlaib, who had regularly met with American Muslim Brotherhood and Hezbollah supporters and accused American Jews of “dual loyalties,” and the Somali-American Omar, who introduced BDS legislation in the House of Representatives, constructed (perhaps even unwittingly) a no-win situation for Israel.

The Israeli choices were unpalatable: they could have been admitted and create a media circus for the duration of the visit, when they would undoubtedly have issued various condemnations of Israel, or denied admission. Arguably, the worst outcome would have been a visit to the Temple Mount by the two, which could have sparked riots resulting in injuries perhaps even to the congresswomen themselves. More likely is that Israeli (or even American) security officials would have prevented them from visiting the Temple Mount at all, resulting in a well-publicized confrontation.

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From the Israeli side, the conflicting messages and last minute denial underlined government indecision. But this decision was followed by the release by the prime minister’s office of information showing the trip had been partially funded by Miftah, a leading BDS organization, and an itinerary that featured no meetings with Israeli officials or private citizens, only Palestinian ones. Their trip was hardly two sided or even educational; it was simply a propaganda mission.

Had this information been released earlier — even by a matter of hours before the final decision was announced — it could have forced their hand, or at least made the Israeli decision more comprehensible. As is so often the case, the optics of a potentially justifiable decision were muddied by delay, indecision, and apparent lack of concern.

The American responses were equally predictable. President Donald Trump had broadcast his belief that the two should be denied entry and with characteristic caprice tweeted “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.”

By doing so, this made it appear that Trump was alternately forcing Netanyahu’s hand or attempting to support his decision (prior to the Israeli elections), and that Netanyahu was kowtowing to an American diktat. Trump’s antipathy towards the “squad” of socialists and particularly Omar and Tlaib, who have accused him repeatedly of “racism” and “Islamophobia,” is deep, as is his overwrought philo-semitism.

Democratic presidential candidates, none of whom are particularly disposed towards Israel in the first place, expressed outrage. Senator Elizabeth Warren stated, “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.”

Senator Bernie Sanders went further and stated the move was “a sign of enormous disrespect to these elected leaders, to the United States Congress, and to the principles of democracy.” For her part, Omar called the move an “affront.” More gentle disapproval came from Israel supporters such as AIPAC and other communal organizations.

These and other condemnations conveniently overlook that Israel has done the same with legislators from other countries, as the US has with an Israeli parliamentarian as well as a host of others including football great Diego Maradona, singer Amy Winehouse, and the prominent Indian politician (and current prime minister) Narendra Modi, on far flimsier grounds. Denying entry to legislators is unusual but hardly unprecedented.

That seemingly intelligent commentators like Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum depicted the decision, however misguided, as somehow authorizing “authoritarian leaders” around the world to begin “barring opposition politicians from travel” is as bizarre as it is disheartening. “Authoritarians” do not need a license to do what they have been doing forever. The fact that it was Israel barring (Muslim) congresswomen apparently has permanently changed global politics.

In general, the venom of denunciations of Israeli policy and expressions of hurt may index the desire to fundamentally change the relationship between the two countries.

Beyond this, the description of the decision as unprecedented and an affront to Congress is not only deliberately exaggerated and ahistorical — it is also an un-ironic endorsement of Israel’s vassal status. Vassalage was “proven” by “taking Trump’s’ advice” and by making a sovereign decision. But Democrats also expect to be kowtowed to, perhaps even more than Trump, as Israel’s saviors and in the name of “preserving Israeli democracy.”

The lack of anticipation on the part of Israeli officials rankles; the train was sighted long before the wreck occurred. An impetuous and destructive intervention by Trump should have been anticipated and contingencies planned for. There is no sign this was done. Israeli public diplomacy, clumsily divided between the Prime Minister’s Office, the multi-faceted Strategic Affairs Ministry, and the kneecapped Foreign Ministry, fell between the cracks. Coordination with the US at the formal diplomatic level and that of various legislators and organizations was also lacking.

In the end, it would have been wise to allow Omar and Tlaib to visit and to have been gracious in the face of their animus. Nevertheless, despite the storm, it is unlikely that this particular train wreck will destroy the Israeli-American relationship or even invigorate the BDS movement. It will instead cement views, including hostility, on all sides, and reinforce sadly warranted views of Israeli diplomatic ineptitude.

Dr. Alex Joffe (PhD, University of Arizona) specializes in ancient and modern Middle Eastern studies, American foreign policy, and American cultural politics.

A version of this article was originally published by The BESA Center.

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