Banning Tlaib and Omar: Israel’s Self-Inflicted Black Eye
JNS.org – In the aftermath of Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s rejection of Israel’s offer to visit her ailing grandmother, it’s important to step back and ask: Was Israel’s initial acceptance and then denial of her visit to Israel a wise decision? What does it say about Israel’s public-relations strategies?
Brooke Goldstein of the Lawfare Project writing at Fox News said, “Israel was wise to deny entry. … These freshmen Democratic congresswomen have built their brands on delegitimizing the Jewish state … [they] would have used a visit to Israel to give themselves an international platform to spew their hate.”
Her description of the Congresswomen (Tlaib and Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar) may be accurate, but denying them entry seemed unwise. Yes, they intentionally misled Israel regarding their dates of entry as part of a ploy to maximize their media coverage, and their presence would have been a circus for the international media, who delight in anything that paints Israel in a bad light.
But denying entry after Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer said that the women would be allowed to enter the country out of respect for the dignity of the office they hold — and not their personal views or policies they advocate — has for many Americans who do not fully understand the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict turned them into sympathetic figures, despite their odious views.
It has deflected attention from the spotlight that could have been focused on them during their visit, revealing a deep stain of antisemitism, and highlighting the frustrations of dealing with a Palestinian leadership under Palestinian Authority (PA) head Mahmoud Abbas that turned down more than 100 percent of disputed Israeli-Palestinian land and eastern Jerusalem as its capital in 2007, which was confirmed last year by chief PA negotiator Saeb Erekat.
The trip would have been a perfect opportunity for Israel to make the case that this conflict is not a territorial issue for this generation of Palestinians, but that it’s still an existential threat to destroy the Jewish state entirely.
If Israel had better control of its foreign-policy public relations, lemonade could have been made out of lemons. Instead, the harsh critics of American mainstream media will now be able to depict Israel as being unable to tolerate criticism.
Would it have made a difference?
Gil Troy writing in The Jerusalem Post in 2017 asked if Israel’s bad PR is its own fault. He wrote, “We need Israeli policies that are good, not policies to make Israel look good. … We haven’t explained ourselves well, yet our efforts are doomed. Antisemitism, the world’s longest … hatred, persists no matter how brilliant our arguments. … Anti-Zionism grew … during the Oslo peace process, when Israel was conceding territory.”
Donald Trump’s advice to Israel to deny entry after Israel had said it would accept the two Congresswomen was well-meant, but counterproductive. Israel should have politely rejected his advice, while thanking him for his support of the Jewish state.
As Jonathan Tobin writing in JNS said, “This is a moment when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should have not only sought to establish a little distance between his government and the White House, but also ignored the advice coming from the Twitter account of @realDonaldTrump. … Banning members of Congress, even antisemitic BDS supporters … is a grave mistake that will only help Israel’s foes.”
The president, intentionally or not, interfered in Israeli politics during an election season, which will be counterproductive and a distraction from Israel’s real issues. This was an opportunity for Netanyahu to show some independence, while keeping the ever-strained bipartisan US support for Israel in Congress from being damaged.
As Herb Keinon of The Jerusalem Post wrote, “This will force Israel’s friends in the Democratic Party to condemn it, and it could impact on the positions presidential candidates will now take on Israel in the debates.”
The Congresswomen’s trip was a no-win situation for Israel — a choice between bad and worse. However, Israel’s vibrant democracy could have easily withstood these Israel-haters.
Was Israel’s action not to allow these women to visit Israel legal? Yes.
According to professor Eugene Kontorovich of the George Mason University School of Law, “As someone one who has argued that Israel should admit Omar and Tlaib, I must also say that the decision to bar them is legitimate. … Countries routinely deny visas to those with extremist views. The US excludes people for ideologies fundamentally hostile to the US.”
But was it a wise decision? I think, on balance, not.
Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the US Senate and House, and their foreign-policy advisers. He is a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and a contributor to i24TV, The Hill, JTA, and The Forward.