Netanyahu’s decision to bar Muslim congresswomen complicates US-Israel ties

“(I)t was also a public-relations disaster for the Israeli government, as Netanyahu undoubtedly understood," said Israeli author Ruth Margalit.
Saturday 24/08/2019
Muftia Tlaib, the maternal grandmother of US Representative Rashida Tlaib, walks with her son Bassam (R) outside their home in the village of Beit Ur al-Fauqa in the occupied West Bank, August 15.(AFP)
Forlorn hope. Muftia Tlaib, the maternal grandmother of US Representative Rashida Tlaib, walks with her son Bassam (R) outside their home in the village of Beit Ur al-Fauqa in the occupied West Bank, August 15.(AFP)

WASHINGTON - Israel-US relations became a hyper-partisan issue after Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, apparently acting at the behest of US President Donald Trump, barred two Democratic congresswomen from entering Israel.

Israeli authorities announced in mid-August that US Representative Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, and Representative Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat from Michigan, would not be allowed to visit Israel.

Their entry was barred from Israel following a Twitter posting by Trump stating: “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.”

Israeli author Ruth Margalit wrote in the New Yorker that “(i)t was also a public-relations disaster for the Israeli government, as Netanyahu undoubtedly understood.”

Omar and Tlaib were to travel to Israel on a trip sponsored by MIFTAH, a pro-Palestinian group led by Hanan Ashrawi, an Executive Committee member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

The trip was to include meetings with Arab Knesset member Aida Touma-Sliman and leaders of Breaking the Silence, a non-profit group founded by former Israel Defence Forces soldiers who are against the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Tlaib also planned to visit her 90-year-old grandmother in the West Bank. After the decision to prevent their entry, Tlaib was granted a “humanitarian exception” to visit her grandmother under the condition that she not support the boycott movement while in Israel.

Tlaib refused, saying: “I could not go until I was a free, American, United States congresswoman coming there not only to see my grandmother but to talk to Palestinian and Israeli organisations that believed that my grandmother deserved human dignity as much as anyone else does.”

Omar, in a news conference August 19, said “the decision to ban me and my colleague, the first two Muslim-American women elected to Congress, is nothing less than an attempt by an ally of the United States to suppress our ability to do our jobs as elected officials.”

Omar and Tlaib were supported by other Democrats in Congress. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer condemned the Israeli decision. Pelosi said: “Israel’s denial of entry to Congresswomen Tlaib and Omar is a sign of weakness and beneath the dignity of the great State of Israel. The president’s statements about the congresswomen are a sign of ignorance and disrespect, and beneath the dignity of the Office of the President.”

Trump has been outspoken about his support for Israel and maintained a close relationship with Netanyahu, however, American-Jewish support for the Republican Party has ebbed during Trump’s time in office.

Many attribute the shift to controversial stances and remarks by Trump such as one made August 20 in which he referred to Jewish Americans who vote for Democrats as having “either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty” and are anti-Semitic in nature.

Ahead of the September 17 election in Israel, Netanyahu needed to maintain positive relations with the Trump administration and secure the votes of both Israeli voters and the support of conservative Republicans, including evangelical Christians who back Israeli settlement policies. With a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement bill before Congress, Netanyahu needs to secure Trump’s veto if the measure is passed in Congress.

Netanyahu’s compliance with Trump’s urging that Tlaib and Omar be prevented from entering Israel sparked unprecedented criticism even from staunch supporters of the Israeli right. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said, although it disagreed with Tlaib’s and Omar’s views on Israel, it “also believed every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand.”

Netanyahu is facing an indictment on three charges of corruption, allegations that have weakened Israeli voters’ trust in him. Further loss of support over a crisis with the United States could seriously endanger his chances of re-election.

Support for Israel has long been a bipartisan stance in the United States. Democratic supporters of Israel, including Hoyer, who leads an annual week-long trip for Democrats in Israel, to educate lawmakers on Israel.

Hoyer has been outspoken about his disapproval for Netanyahu’s decision to bar the congresswomen, saying: “This action is contrary to the statement and assurances to me by Israel’s ambassador to the United States that ‘out of respect for the US Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America, we would not deny entry to any Member of Congress into Israel.’”

Despite the outcry concerning Tlaib and Omar’s ban on entering Israel, it is unlikely the relationship between Israel and the United States will change over the issue. On August 21, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin spoke with Pelosi, asserting afterward that “the link between [the United States and Israel] is between peoples, based on historical ties, deep, strong friendships and shared values, not dependent on the links with either party.”

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