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Trump is the only reason Netanyahu banned the US congresswomen. They'll both regret it

Israel's right-wing government just made it clear it has no time for US Democrats. What happens when Trump is no longer in the White House?
US President Donald Trump and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in 2018 (AFP)

Last month, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer assured congressional Democrats that Muslim-American representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar would be permitted entry at Ben Gurion Airport in order to make their way to Palestine.

In return, US Congressman Steny Hoyer, the Democratic Party's majority leader, promised he would bring the largest delegation of Democrats ever to tour Israel.

'After instituting a boycott against the congresswomen, Netanyahu blames them for boycotting meetings with the Israeli government'

But a strange thing happened on the way to the Holy Land: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flip-flopped. 

The government announced on Thursday that they would be barred entry, both because they support the BDS movement and because their itinerary focused solely on visits to Palestine, avoiding contact with Israeli officials.

"There is no country in the world that respects the US and the American Congress more than Israel,” Netanyahu tweeted. “However, the itinerary showed that the congresswomen’s sole intention was to harm Israel.”

Apparently, two US House members seeking to visit Palestine is somehow a threat to Israel’s existence - not to mention that the Israeli leader himself discouraged Israeli officials from meeting with the two while they were in Israel-Palestine.

So after instituting a boycott against them, Netanyahu blames them for boycotting any meetings with the Israeli government.

'Israel should boycott them'

Tlaib is the first Palestinian-American ever elected to the House of Representatives and Omar, the first Somali-American elected to Congress. They are also the first Muslim-American women elected to Congress. 

They announced months ago, after House Republicans and Democrats organised an annual junket to Israel under the auspices of the Israel Lobby, that they would make their visit to Palestine.

After a false start with the first sponsoring organisation, they joined with the Palestinian NGO Miftah to organise their visit, which was to begin this weekend.

However, as Axios reported, President Trump started voicing his displeasure last week, kicking off a process which would eventually lead to blowing up the deal.

He reportedly told senior officials in his administration that Israel should bar the congresswomen because of their support for BDS and that he disagreed with Dermer's rationale for Israel to overlook its own law banning BDS supporters to let the two in.

Trump said that if Omar and Tlaib wanted to boycott Israel "then Israel should boycott them", a source told Axios.

The 48-hour flip-flop

After Trump made his views known, the Israeli government remained quiet until a few days ago, when Axios reported a secret “all-hands-on-deck” security meeting to prepare for the congressional visit. 

At that point, the security officials met with the understanding that the government would permit them to enter. 

However, in the past 48 hours, news reports filtered out of official Israeli circles that Netanyahu had decided to reject his ambassador’s advice and instead side with the US president. Trump sealed the deal with a second tweet urging Netanyahu to block their visit.

Clearly, Trump was the critical factor in changing Netanyahu’s mind. He emboldened the Israeli leader's worst impulses just as he emboldens the worst impulses of Americans. 

The flip-flop also proved Trump’s enormous impact on Israel’s far-right government although frankly he offered his blessing for a draconian approach the government wanted to take anyway. But Trump also offered cover for Netanyahu to renege on agreements he had already struck with congressional Democrats.

Reaction in Washington has been universally negative. Democrats in particular have responded with fury and a sense of betrayal. Even Republicans like Senator Ted Cruz, normally allied with Trump, expressed their displeasure

In the Washington Post, pro-Israel columnist Jennifer Rubin, normally associated with right-wing GOP views, called the decision “a grave misstep”. Even AIPAC itself criticised Netanyahu’s ban. 

After rejecting her entry, the Israeli government agreed to offer Tlaib a humanitarian permit to visit her 90 year-old grandmother in the West Bank.  In her request for the permit, she agreed to refrain from advocating for BDS and unspecified "other restrictions".

When announcing her visit to Palestine would be permitted, the interior minister, Aryeh Deri, released Tlaib's letter in which she had agreed to the government restrictions.

This was certainly a carefully-crafted strategy on the Israelis part to make it appear that the US Congress' leading advocate for Palestinian rights had acceded to the government's demands that she restrict her advocacy as long as she was in Israel-Palestine. For a short time, it appeared that Tlaib had been "played" and that the Israelis had politically embarrassed someone they viewed as a threat.

Palestinian activists made their views known and criticised her for accepting the conditions. Shortly after, Tlaib announced she had rejected the permit. She would not be coming to Palestine and her grandmother would not be able to meet her this time.

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Her rejection set off a new round of recrimination from the Israelis and Trump who, in his own tasteless fashion, congratulated Tlaib's grandmother as a "winner" because she would not have to see her obnoxious granddaughter. When Muftia Tlaib heard this, she offered Trump a pungent Palestinian curse: "May you be ruined!"

Even the most well-meaning progressive politicians don't realise the power game Israel is playing. They've been at it far longer than any American politician has. Deri and Netanyahu are playing the long game, while members of Congress only look at what's in front of them.

To Tlaib, the promise to adhere to Israeli restrictions appeared a minor temporary inconvenience she could accept in return for seeing her beloved sity (grandmother). But to Deri and his government, Tlaib was a dangerous figure who needed to be cut down to size. Releasing her letter, in which she appeared to capitulate to Israeli demands, made her appear a much smaller political figure.

Luckily, Tlaib saw the trap that had been set for her and redeemed herself by refusing to participate in the Israeli charade.

The end of pretence

Overall, this outcome is a disaster for the Israeli lobby in the US. It not only makes a pretence of being bi-partisan, it also proudly declares there is “no daylight” between Israel and the US when it comes to Israeli security.  Those claims have just been blown to shreds. 

'Trump needs bogeymen to run against in 2020. Someone he can beat up politically'

Clearly, Israel’s right-wing government has no use for Democrats, something Netanyahu has made abundantly clear for years. And given that Israel has declared two members of the US Congress to be persona non grata, the idea that US and Israeli interests overlap is no longer viable.

Trump, however, is likely delighted. He needs bogeymen to run against in 2020. Someone he can beat up politically. He apparently believes that "the Squad", consisting of women, refugees and Muslims, will be easy targets for his hateful campaign rhetoric.

Rep. Tlaib’s response to her ban was to tweet a photo of her Palestinian sity or grandmother, which poignantly articulated the issue as Israel separating Americans from their families abroad:

Rep. Omar released a stern statement castigating Israel for interfering with her responsibilities as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee:

Rep. Omar declared that the Israeli decision is tantamount to a “Muslim ban”, the same policy inaugurated by Trump himself in the early days of his presidency. 

Even more telling, Israel, which has declared the BDS movement an existential threat, has instituted a de facto boycott of members of the US Congress it dislikes. So while Israel argues that boycotts are illegal or an economic threat, it employs the same tactic against foreign officials it views as hostile.

Setting new diplomatic precedents

Trump and the Israelis forget that two can play at this game. Whenever any foreign government wishes, it can now bar US presidents, cabinet officials, intelligence officials, or members of Congress from visiting. 

And just as Netanyahu has barred these two Democratic representatives, so a future Democratic administration may bar Israeli prime ministers, cabinet officers or Knesset members from visiting the US.

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Though the list of Trump’s violations of diplomatic and political protocols is so long that we’re inured to their severity, we can’t underestimate how grave this case is. There is an international consensus on how diplomacy is conducted. If a foreign official wants to visit your country, you admit them as a matter of courtesy, because this is the treatment you expect for your own officials.

Even when leaders considered enemies of the US like Fidel Castro and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to address the United Nations, the US did not bar them entry. Not even Trump has dared violate this protocol

But Israel, which considers adherence to international norms optional in its case (only observing them if it’s in its interests), has thrown them to the winds. And now it will reap the whirlwind.

Countries which object to Israeli policies will feel emboldened to block visits by Netanyahu and his cabinet. Israelis who heretofore only worried about being arrested on war crimes charges by foreign states will find themselves disinvited even before they embark on their flights to Europe or Asia. 

And the reasons offered may be substantive, or they may be as superficial as the ones offered by Israel in barring Tlaib and Omar.

If congressional Democrats are seeking more evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors in order to impeach Trump, they have to look no further than this egregious affront to congressional authority and responsibilities.

Richard Silverstein
Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog, devoted to exposing the excesses of the Israeli national security state. His work has appeared in Haaretz, the Forward, the Seattle Times and the Los Angeles Times. He contributed to the essay collection devoted to the 2006 Lebanon war, A Time to Speak Out (Verso) and has another essay in the collection, Israel and Palestine: Alternate Perspectives on Statehood (Rowman & Littlefield) Photo of RS by: (Erika Schultz/Seattle Times)