Ban on US congresswomen shows Israel’s weakness
Israel barred US congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib from visiting the country last week because of their support for the boycott of Israel over its occupation of Palestinian land, in what was ostensibly a show of strength and determination to stand up to the BDS movement. In fact, it proved the Netanyahu government to be a mere a tool in the hands of the White House, which has been waging a full-blown war against “the squad” —ethnic minority Democrat congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, along with Omar and Tlaib.
Israel first allowed their visit, but Donald Trump pressured it to reverse the decision; in a show of pandering to the US president, the government did just that. In case anyone doubted Trump’s ill feeling toward Omar and Tlaib, he shared it on Twitter: “They hate Israel & all Jewish people, & there is nothing that can be said or done to change their minds … They are a disgrace!” He has no evidence to substantiate this claim, of course, but that is less surprising than to see Israel, a sovereign state, caving in to his demands.
In doing so, Netanyahu has demonstrated his willingness to risk America’s long-standing cross-party support for Israel. Only a politician who lacks backbone would sacrifice the asset of almost universal support for his country in the US for the instant gratification of satisfying its current president. I would not be surprised if this came to haunt Israel’s relations with its main ally by losing it the support of many Americans.
That is one side of the equation. The other is the constant erosion of Israeli political and civil rights; Netanyahu and his cronies continue to undermine the very foundations of democratic and liberal Israel, bringing it to a state that is almost beyond recognition. This is in itself a source of long-term damage to relations with the US, as Washington has always seen Israel as a bastion of shared liberal values, without which the special relationship is in question. Worse is the destructive nature of the government’s growing intolerance of dissenting voices, inside or outside the country, and the punitive actions taken against them.
Understandably, the issue of BDS is an uncomfortable one for the Israeli government and society, as it is for those who promote it. Some BDS supporters genuinely believe it could end the occupation and lead to peace based on a two-state solution; others question Israel’s right to exist at all. Israel is entitled to argue with both, but to assume that all of them hold the latter view and hate its very existence, let alone to legislate against their visits, does a disservice to a country that has prided itself on being a vibrant democracy, a status that has also brought great benefits in its interactions with the international community.
Israel's barring of Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib proves the Netanyahu government to be a mere a tool in the hands of the White House.
Preventing elected legislators from visiting, prohibiting a student from taking a degree in Israel as was the case with Lara Alqasem, or spending immense resources to expel Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, are indications of a society losing confidence and belief in its own arguments, let alone its ability to convince others of them. One doesn’t need to support the BDS movement — and I don’t necessarily agree with either its oversimplified view of the conflict, or its proposed solutions — to observe that so far the occupation has been not only cost free but a source of profit to Israel, and that recent Israeli governments have actively blocked the path to peace; in this light, it was inevitable that the BDS movement would gather momentum.
The more intransigent the Israeli government becomes in its refusal to make genuine and necessary concessions to end the occupation and hasten a two-state solution, the more Israel should expect support for BDS to increase. In fact, BDS thrives on Israeli overreactions against it; a less emotive and more calculated response would have been to act on the realisation that the BDS movement has enjoyed limited success. This is partly because it is more activist-orientated than focused on effective policy, but also because the human and political rights of the weak and dispossessed are currently not high on the priorities of the international community. To a large extent the BDS movement and its ideas (which are not the same thing) derive much of their publicity and gravitas from Israel’s intense campaign against it.
In the case of Tlaib and Omar, for Israel to walk straight into Trump’s vicious and racist attacks against “the squad” (which further reveal not only his system of beliefs, but also his cynicism in attempting to portray them as the face of the Democrats) was sheer folly. And to make matters worse, insisting that Tlaib’s proposed visit to Palestine to see her 90 year-old grandmother was conditional on her refraining from political activity, and then adding insult to injury by questioning her love for her grandmother when she refused to accept such a condition, was a show of inhuman ugliness.
Neither the US administration nor the Israeli government have exactly covered themselves with glory in this sorry episode. Israel now looks like just another of Trump’s puppets, while both governments appear to be incapable of dealing with diverse and dissenting opinions; they are politically brutish, entirely unsophisticated, and sorely lacking in humanity.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg