Harm Avoided, Harm Done

It’s been a difficult week for those of us who care about a strong relationship between the United States and Israel. The relationship has historically been much more one between the US Congress and Israel than one between any US President and Israel. Additionally, it has always been Israel, not Israel’s Prime Minister, with whom the relationship has been made.

There are good things and bad things about strong relations between individual Prime Ministers and US Presidents. Certainly, it is advantageous to Israel to be able to more readily express policy needs and to expect a positive response. Among the bad things for Israel in dealing with any President is that US Presidents can do tremendous harm to Israel, often just by not helping, much less by doing harmful things such as holding back a veto at the UN Security Council or negotiating an agreement in the region that helps make Israel’s enemies stronger. When the President says in Israel’s direction, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Israel is put in a difficult situation.

This President, in the relationship that he has with the Israeli Prime Minister, tweeting that it would show “great weakness” for Israel to admit Reps. Omar and Tlaib is such a request.

When it was originally suggested to me that Israel would ban Reps. Omar and Tlaib from coming to Israel, my response was “There is no way that Israel would refuse entry to members of the US Congress, period!” I was reassured when Ambassador Dermer, shortly thereafter, echoed that response.

When the Israeli Knesset passed its anti-BDS advocate entry bill a couple of years ago, I thought it was a bad bill, one that would be entirely subjective and would be unevenly enforced. Yet, I thought that no matter how that bill might relate to members of the US Congress, the Israeli government would be strategic enough in its thinking, especially about the long-term US Israel relationship to not apply it to members of the US Congress.

First, there is the obvious reality that Members of Congress approve funding that Israel receives. While it is not true that Members need to visit countries and sites that receive funding in order to conduct their appropriate oversight (clearly that doesn’t happen in relation to other countries and programs that receive foreign aid), it is at best unseemly to prohibit members from coming.

Second, arguments that Israel unduly restricts the freedom of movement and access of Palestinians are prominent in their arguments against Israel. Why take an action that gives fuel to that argument?

Third, it would be expected that the Democratic Party would react badly to having two of  its members excluded, even with some justification, and that the Party’s leaders would have to do damage control. Some members of the Party would undoubtedly call for diplomatic retaliation and arguments against strong support for Israel would receive increased support as Democrats rally the wagons around Reps. Omar and Tlaib.

Fourth, something potentially positive for PM Netanyahu in his own elections, but negative in the eyes of many American Jews on the political left, such a decision would appear to align more closely President Trump with Israel’s leadership.

But we cannot stop there because the situation doesn’t stop there. Reps. Omar and Tlaib submitted an itinerary for their visit to “Palestine,” with no mention of Israel that was organized by Miftah, an organization known for promoting Antisemitism, not just criticism of Israel. See this article by David French about Miftah. The two are known advocates both for the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement against Israel and for a one state solution, essentially wiping Israel off of the map and replacing it with an “Israel-Palestine” which would end the Jewish character of the state, end the idea of Israel as a Jewish homeland, and end Israel as a place of refuge for Jews. There is no question that the intentions of the two Members of Congress in that regard is hostile to the government of Israel.

On their trip, we almost certainly would have seen the two promoting the worst stories they could find of oppression and suffering, while promoting nothing that could possibly be construed as positive. They would cry and smile, filled, no doubt, with real emotions to normal concerns and joys as well as doing so in relation to planned and staged PR opportunities. They would come to Israel to exploit and harm Israel, every bit as much as to advocate for Palestinians.

Most of us, who advocate for Israel, including many Israeli leaders, argued that,with all of this understood, Israel is strong enough to deal with a few days of nastiness and PR events. It could handle Rep. Tlaib celebrating with her family in Beit Hanina, while sharing their difficulties with the world, and Rep. Omar talking with Ethiopian Jews about racism. Israel does face challenges. It isn’t perfect. Many of us in the Israel advocacy community would hope for changes ourselves.

That Reps. Omar and Tlaib might well present these challenges in ways that would increase hatred of Israel and could well lead to increased Antisemitism against Jews worldwide is a real concern. There is little doubt in that regard that Israel’s rejection of those opportunities and whatever backlash it may face over denying their entry is better than more elderly Chasidic men being attacked in New York, more attacks against Jewish facilities in Europe, and violent protests breaking out in Israel or terrorism against it. Israel has real concerns about fallout from such a trip as well as fallout from preventing it.

Israel does have moral and ethical reasons to actively prevent activities that could result in those things and one could argue that in particular with the track record of Representatives Omar and Tlaib in regard to their statements and actions related to Israel and Jews. No few today are relieved that our debate is limited to arguing about the rejection of  visas and not about something worse.

  • Among the things that we are concerned about is that this rejection by Israel of Representatives Omar and Tlaib’s itinerary will result in their embrace and an unwillingness to explicitly and strongly challenge their positions in regard to Israel by leaders in the Democratic Party.
  • What we’re worried about is that this embrace and failure to publicly criticize them will go a long way to aiding the President in presenting the two Members of Congress as “the face of the Party,” not in regard to its racial and ethnic diversity, but in regard to its hostility to general American support for Israel and to a lack of hostility to Antisemitism.
  • We’re concerned about people painting Israel as “Anti-Muslim” which is both untrue and could lead to Antisemitism. We don’t want to see people like the former Vice Presidential Candidate for the Democratic Party, Sen. Tim Kaine, among others calling this a “Muslim Ban” so as to call upon the hatred among progressives for the President while applying it inappropriately to Israel.
  • We’re concerned that the response among progressives will be to lurch toward the positions of the British Labour Party which allowed Antisemitism to flourish in its ranks, positions which promoted criticism of Israel, embraced its critics, and largely ignored for many years even overt Antisemitism.

The appropriate response to Israel’s ban of Reps. Omar and Tlaib is to BOTH decry their positions and intent in relation to Israel and to challenge Israel’s unwillingness to tolerate hearing even harsh criticisms from Members of Congress, who indeed should, as representatives of Israel’s closest ally, be granted appropriate privileges and tolerance based upon that relationship. There is no situation in which an Anti-BDS bill should have made no exception for diplomatic needs at the direction of the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. The law should not be seen as taking the decision out of their hands.

It is said that we see the true character of someone when their inhibitions are gone. The greatest harm done by this decision by Israel is that it has revealed that beneath the cordiality often offered in both directions, for too many, there is a great deal of contempt.

Some harm was avoided. Some harm was done.

Let us hope that those who truly believe in a strong relationship between our nations will be able to repair and rebuild from the damage that has been done. It’s possible that we’ll only need to wait until after the upcoming Israeli elections for that to begin.

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