Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar aren’t being banned from Israel because of their criticism of Israel. They’re being banned because of their criticism of Donald Trump.
The president made it clear this morning that even Benjamin Netanyahu isn’t “pro-Israel” enough for him.
Sure enough, a short time later on Thursday, a decision was announced by the Israeli government to ban the two lawmakers from making a planned trip, during which they planned to visit the Temple Mount.
This was a reversal for the Israelis. Israel has a law on the books barring foreign supporters of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement, which seeks to pressure Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and expand Palestinian rights, from entering the country. Though Tlaib and Omar both publicly support BDS, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, had announced several weeks ago that the two would be allowed to visit “out of respect for the U.S. Congress.” But if the U.S. president wants Israel to ban his political enemies, and says doing otherwise would show “weakness,” who is the prime minister of Israel to say no? Trump’s steadfast support is one of Netanyahu’s most important assets these days, as he heads into closely fought elections this fall.
Tlaib and Omar aren’t the first critics of Israel penalized by the 2017 law, but they are the most prominent. The law targets those who “actively, consistently and continuously” promote boycotts of Israel. It applies to those who hold senior-level positions in pro-boycott organizations, are key activists in the boycott movements, or are prominent public figures (members of Congress, for instance) who support a boycott. More than 20 groups have been blacklisted, including the Nobel Peace Prize–winning American Friends Services Committee. One notable case was the banning of Lara Alqasem, an American college student of Palestinian descent who received a visa to study human rights at Hebrew University but was ordered deported and detained for two weeks on suspicion of being a boycott supporter. Her deportation was later overturned.
Other American public figures, including journalist Peter Beinart and Brandeis University chair Meyer Koplow, have been detained and interrogated about their views since the law was passed. (Koplow, a vocal supporter of Israel, aroused suspicion because of a Palestinian brochure in his luggage.)
Whatever you think of BDS, Israel’s law is undemocratic and counterproductive. It’s widely seen as an attempt to criminalize those who use nonviolent tactics to voice their opposition to Israeli policies. But as Dermer’s previous statement suggested, even this Israeli government can be pragmatic. The Israeli government has no fondness for Tlaib or Omar, but it wasn’t about to ban two members of U.S. Congress—until Trump insisted on it.
Trump’s outlandish intervention is governed by pretty clear political logic. He’s doing everything he can to make these two women—the first Muslim women in Congress—the face of the Democratic Party and portray that party as anti-Israel. He believes this will play well with his right-wing and evangelical supporters and may lead some Jews to abandon the Democrats; the first scenario is a much better bet than the second.
Going along with this is much riskier for Israel. While it’s been customary for American politicians of all stripes to express unconditional support for Israel, that’s now up for debate. Democrats have grown critical of Israeli policies—and even more so of Netanyahu himself—and Israel is increasingly becoming a partisan issue in the U.S. This won’t help. As one Israeli diplomat told Haaretz, banning the lawmakers “will cause actual damage to our relations with the Democrats. Everyone understands that Democrats will return to power at some point, and this will be a decision that the party won’t forget.” Even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group that has lately struggled to maintain its bipartisan identity, expressed disappointment in today’s move.
In large part, this is a problem of Netanyahu’s own making. The prime minister more or less cast his lot with the Republicans years before Trump arrived on the scene, but always at least went through the motions of bipartisanship and will presumably look to mend fences if another Democrat is elected—a task that just became a whole lot harder.
Now, he’s fighting for his political survival and can’t afford to alienate a U.S. president who’s hell-bent on driving a political wedge between the Democrats and Israel.