Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, U.S. Politics and the Future of Palestine

Shortly after she was elected to Congress in November 2018, Representative Rashida Tlaib announced that she would forgo the traditional congressional summer junket to Israel sponsored by AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and lead an alternative congressional delegation to Israel/Palestine herself. Ultimately, only Representative Ilhan Omar decided to join her. They were scheduled to depart on August 16 for a tour of the West Bank under the auspices of Miftah, the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy, founded by the veteran Palestinian political leader, peace negotiator, and civil society activist Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, who was denied entry to the United States earlier this year and to meet with Palestinian and Israeli human rights activists. Tlaib also expected to visit her sity (grandma), who lives in the small village of Beit ‘Ur al-Foqa near Ramallah.

Then, at President Donald Trump’s urging, Israel refused to permit the two first-term Muslim congresswomen into the country on the grounds that they support the international campaign for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel for its violations of Palestinian rights. In fact, the congresswomen were to have visited primarily the Israeli-occupied West Bank. But Israel controls all entry and exit from the West Bank (and even more tightly, the Gaza Str

 In 2017 the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, enacted legislation barring BDS supporters from entry to Israel. Fourteen people, including a French mayor, members of the European Parliament, and Jewish-Americans have been excluded based on the law. Israel previously banned many others, among them Palestinian-Americans and prominent Jewish supporters of Palestinian rights Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein (neither of whom supports BDS), without legislative sanction. 

Leading Democrats and Republicans, the editorial boards of The Washington Post and The New York Times, and even AIPAC sharply criticized Israel’s decision in language rarely heard in establishment circles. Israel then partially recanted and announced that Tlaib could visit her 90-year-old grandmother as a humanitarian gesture if she agreed not to speak in favor of BDS during her trip. She initially agreed to this condition.

But several of Tlaib’s supporters were disconcerted by her decision, as reported by The Electronic Intifada website. “What is truly upsetting is that @RashidaTlaib fell in this trap and accepted to demean herself and grovel,” tweeted Nour Odeh, the former Al Jazeera English senior correspondent for the West Bank. “The notion of Israel allowing @RepRashida to visit her family in the OPT [Occupied Palestinian Territories]as a ’humanitarian‘ gesture is worse than the ban. We won’t respect you as an independent political leader, as a US congresswoman, but you’re welcome to beg for mercy like all Palestinians – is the message,” tweeted Haggai Matar, an Israeli journalist and executive director of the +972 website who spent two years in jail for refusing to serve in the Israeli army.

Tlaib reconsidered and decided not to make the trip. “When I won, it gave the Palestinian people hope that someone will finally speak the truth about the inhumane conditions. I can’t allow the State of Israel to take away that light by humiliating me & use my love for my sity to bow down to their oppressive & racist policies,” she tweeted.

Demonstrating uncharacteristic diplomatic finesse, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, sought to avoid an international incident and damage to Israel’s already shaky international reputation by announcing in mid-July that “out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America” representatives Omar and Tlaib would be allowed to undertake their announced trip to Israel. One might normally show respect for a body that votes, with an overwhelming bipartisan majority, to give Israel $3.8 billion annually in military aid.

Trump saved the day for racism, political obtuseness, and opportunism by tweeting on August 15, just before the two congresswomen were scheduled to travel, “It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit. They hate Israel & all Jewish people…” Trump, with characteristic diplomatic clumsiness, had previously made his views known privately to senior Israeli officials. Colluding with officials of a foreign government against the president’s domestic opponents is arguably an impeachable offense.

In Israel as in the United States, domestic politics often disables common sense on foreign policy. After Trump announced his administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017, his approval rating in Israel leaped to 69 percent, higher than in any other country in the world, including the United States. Benjamin  Netanyahu, who was unable to form a coalition following the May election and faces his second parliamentary election on September 17, desperately needs to hold together his Likud and the coterie of associated right-wing parties to remain in power despite the multiple indictments for corruption he faces. He could not risk losing right-wing support by showing “great weakness” in confronting proponents of BDS. 

The Israeli government and its bi-partisan American minions have inflated BDS into a larger-than-life boogeyman. By painting BDS as a global antisemitic conspiracy, they promote a picture of Israel as a valiant democracy under threat. Israel exploits that picture to justify a litany of antidemocratic and brutal measures: from closing its borders to critics to murdering unarmed civilians at the weekly “Great March of Return” demonstrations in the Gaza Strip since March 2018. (The Portland DSA chapter has been campaigning against the Beaverton, Oregon firm, Leupold & Stevens, that manufactures the sniper scopes Israel has been using against Gazan demonstrators.) 

Among Netanyahu’s most important domestic supporters are Trump’s largest donors. Sheldon and Miriam Adelson donated more than $123 million to the Republican Party in the 2018 election cycle, over three times more than the next largest donor. Miriam Adelson is the publisher of Israel Today, the largest circulation Israeli daily (because it is free). Its editorial policy is unequivocal adulation for Netanyahu.

Consequently, Netanyahu had little choice but to implement Trump’s veiled directive. But why would the U.S. president create an international incident out of a trip that would likely have garnered less publicity if it had actually happened? Trump’s strategy for the 2020 elections has been to identify the entire Democratic Party with “the Squad”—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley—all women of color and first-term representatives. AOC and Tlaib are also DSA members. He believes that portraying the Democrats as the party of dark-skinned, socialist immigrants will deliver a reprise of his 2016 electoral victory. By smearing the Democratic Party as riddled with antisemitism, Trump may hope to win over some members of the Jewish community, which has voted overwhelmingly Democratic since the New Deal. Even more important, he may have his eyes on major Democratic donors, like Haim Saban, who has said that his one issue is Israel.

Reflecting their own political proclivities and perhaps apprehension that Trump’s strategy may succeed, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have made great efforts to marginalize the bold progressives in the Democratic Party. Consequently a majority of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (which currently numbers 98 members) have wavered in supporting Palestinian rights. Only 22 House Democrats (including all four “Squad” members) are co-sponsors of Representative Betty McCollum’s (D-MN) “Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act” HR 2407, which seeks to amend the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (22 U.S.C. 2378d) by prohibiting U.S. foreign aid dollars from contributing to “the military detention, interrogation, abuse, or ill-treatment of children in violation of international humanitarian law.” 

Bernie Sanders’s foreign policy adviser Matt Duss, himself a long-time opponent of BDS, correctly noted that the Democratic Party shares the responsibility for Israel’s barring Tlaib and Omar. “Every Democrat who helped pretend that BDS is a threat requiring congressional condemnation owns a piece of this,” he tweeted. Democrats who identify as progressives need repeated reminders that Palestinian rights are part of the progressive agenda.