Delegations of members of theUnited States Congress go to Israel on a regular basis. They often spend a few days with senior academics and politicians and get detailed briefings from members of Israel’s national security and intelligence community. In early August, 72 members of the Congress, including 41 Democrats, went on a tour of Israel organised and sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF), a front of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). AIEF organises this trip every two years for new members of Congress. The delegations are led by senior members of each major party—this time by Steny Hoyer (Democrat) and Kevin McCarthy (Republican).
Two of the new members, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, declined to go on this trip. They decided, instead, to go on an alternative trip that was organised by the Palestinian non-governmental organisation Miftah (the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy). Miftah was founded in 1998 by the Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu banned the entry of Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. U.S. President Donald Trump joined in, praising Netanyahu for this act. The U.S. government provides Israel with at least $3.8 billion. That it has decided to ban two U.S. lawmakers from entry into Israel is a decisive step.
Targeted for left-wing politics
Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar are both supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to put pressure on Israel to end its occupation of Palestine. Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American, is the first Palestinian to be elected to the U.S. Congress. She has made no secret of her strong views about the Israeli occupation and her support of Palestinian self-determination. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar are part of a quartet of Congress members who have been targeted by Trump for their firm commitment to left-wing policies. The other two members are Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley. Both declined to go on the AIPAC trip to Israel.
In 2017, the Israeli parliament passed a Bill that bans the entry of anyone into Israel who supports BDS (a similar Bill in the U.S. Congress has failed). Over the past two years, the government has used this law to stop 14 people from entering the country (including seven European parliamentarians). The Far Right politician Bezalel Smotrich said at that time that this Bill would target “haters of Israel”. At the same time, Smotrich and his allies have been key to the move to legalise the annexation of Palestinian lands. There is no barrier against “haters of Palestine”.
In the April 2019 legislative elections, Netanyahu was not able to earn a clear mandate. Under pressure from the judiciary on several corruption investigations, he is eager to win another term as Prime Minister and use his power to counter this legal challenge. But the mandate in April was simply not clear and no government could be formed. Netanyahu’s own Far Right positions are being seen as moderate when compared with the racist and homophobic views of people like Smotrich and the Yamina slate (bloc), which includes the Union of the Right-Wing Parties and the New Right. These Far Right parties share Netanyahu’s base.
A fresh general election will be held on September 17. So far, the electoral map does not favour Netanyahu. The various Far Right factions continue to squabble about the role of Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel and about the role of Netanyahu himself.
Inside Israel, the anti-BDS position has come to represent the core of Israeli and Zionist nationalism. At its heart is the policy for the annexation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Netanyahu has consistently put himself forward as the leader of Zionism, an exponent of the annexationist policy regarding the territories promised for a future Palestinian state. By going after Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, Netanyahu not only appeals to the anti-Muslim seam within Israeli politics, he also seeks to shore up the Far Right behind him so as to coast to victory in the September election. The anti-BDS position has nothing to do with either BDS or the logic of boycotts. It is about affirming the centrality of Far Right Zionist nationalism in Israeli politics.
The AIPAC trip
Controversy surrounds the question of the “pro-Israel lobby”. In 2007, establishment political science professors John Mearsheimer (University of Chicago) and Stephen Walt (Harvard University) published a book called The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy . The book was met with immense criticism, including from those who said that the very suggestion of an “Israel lobby” was anti-Semitic. While Mearsheimer and Walt were careful to point to an “Israel lobby”—one that worked for the cause of the state of Israel—their critics said that behind that phrase lay another, the “Jewish lobby”. But the political scientists were precise, making the case that groups such as AIPAC raised money to burnish the reputation of Israel and ensure that the U.S. government not only paid Israel large sums of money but also provided it diplomatic cover for its occupation of the Palestinians’ land.
Earlier this year, Ilhan Omar posted two tweets that criticised this Israel lobby, which she said had a disproportionate role in the making of U.S. foreign policy. She was roundly attacked for being anti-Semitic, in the same way that Mearsheimer and Walt were attacked more than a decade ago. Any criticism of Israel was met with the accusation of anti-Semitism. It was clear that the members of the U.S. Congress who were most vocal against Ilhan Omar at that time had received large amounts of money from these lobbying organisations. (Representative Eliot Engel, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, went after Ilhan Omar; between 1998 and 2019, Engel received $1.13 million from these pro-Israel groups.)
Ilhan Omar has emerged as one of the most vocal critics of U.S. foreign policy. She criticises U.S. support for Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land—a position she shares with Rashida Tlaib—and she has been strong in her condemnation of Trump’s warmongering against Iran. Ilhan Omar called upon the U.S. administration to return to the table and continue on the diplomatic road with Iran rather than proceed to tighten sanctions and embargoes against that country. It is important to note that AIPAC—as the mirror of Israeli state policy—began a new group called Citizens for a Nuclear Free Iran. This group has already spent $40 million in 35 States in the U.S. condemning the Iran nuclear deal of 2015. The trip to Israel sponsored by AIPAC was partly to influence the new members of the U.S. House of Representatives regarding Iran. Congress is expected to take up the issue of the Iran deal in the session that begins on September 9. It would be helpful to AIPAC if these members of Congress were properly primed by the Israeli security establishment for the vote. It was this trip that Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar decided not to go on.
On whose terms?
Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar were to have gone on a separate tour organised by Miftah. Their itinerary included plans to visit the West Bank and to meet Palestinian politicians inside Israel.
In addition, Rashida Tlaib planned to meet her grandmother—Muftiyah Tlaib, 90—in Beit Ur al-Fauqa, a small village about 10 kilometres west of Ramallah in the West Bank. It sits facing an enormous, illegal Israeli settlement (Beit Horon) and its agricultural land has been divided by the illegal Route 443, a road built by Israelis to connect their settlements. The reality of the Israeli occupation is fundamental to the life of Muftiyah Tlaib, and to Rashida. They have not met since 2007. The Israelis told Rashida Tlaib that she would only be allowed to see her grandmother if she gave an undertaking not to talk about the BDS campaign in the country. She refused, saying she would not go to Palestine on Israel’s terms. When Trump said Muftiyah Tlaib should be happy that her granddaughter was not coming to visit her, this Palestinian woman was firm—May God ruin him, she told Reuters.
Opinion within the United States has swung firmly behind Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. After all, these are elected representatives of the U.S. people—who have over the course of the past 60 years provided close to $150 billion in aid and support to Israel. It is seen as disrespectful that Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar are being denied entry. Even those who do not agree with the BDS campaign are frustrated by the behaviour of Netanyahu and Trump. AIPAC said that the Israeli government should not have blocked the visit by Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. “Every member of Congress,” AIPAC said, “should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel first hand.” This is not going to happen. It has instead become a major political issue in Israel, which is what Netanyahu wanted as part of his election campaign.
Rashida Tlaib released a powerful statement as Israel continued to deny her entry on her terms. She wrote:
Racism and the politics of hate is thriving in Israel and the American people should fear what this will mean for the relationship between our two nations. If you truly believe in democracy, then the close alignment of Netanyahu with Trump’s hate agenda must prompt a re-evaluation of our unwavering support for the State of Israel. The denial of entry of a congressional delegation is not only about Congresswoman Omar and I, but also about the deep-rooted racism within Israel that is taking us further away from peace. The Israeli and Palestinian people need us to be more courageous and to be honest brokers of peace. Being silent and not condemning the human rights violations of the Israeli government is a disservice to all who live there, including my incredibly strong and loving grandmother.