Finding the proper balance between politics and policy can be difficult. But for seasoned politicians, it is usually second nature. Except when it isn’t. That’s what played out last week when Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his administration bumbled, stumbled and fumbled their response to plans by Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) to visit Israel and the territories. In the process, a story about two members of Congress who are hostile to Israel became a story about President Trump, and the loser was Israel.
Tlaib is Palestinian-American and has family in the West Bank. Omar has never visited the region. When the two announced their trip last month, everyone knew that their purpose was not to support Netanyahu’s reelection campaign. Nonetheless, Israel’s U.S. Ambassador, Ron Dermer, issued a diplomatically worded welcome: “Out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America, we would not deny entry to any member of Congress into Israel.”
That’s where things should have ended. But last Thursday, Netanyahu announced that the legislators were no longer welcome, declaring that their announced itinerary “reveals that the sole purpose of their visit is to harm Israel and increase incitement against it.” He also referred to their support of the BDS movement and Israel’s prohibition on allowing BDS advocates to enter the country.
So what changed after the upbeat Dermer statement? Many observers pointed to a tweet from President Trump, which warned, “It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit.” Almost immediately thereafter, Netanyahu announced the ban.
The decision angered many of Israel’s Democratic friends, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), who called it “a sign of weakness.” Many mainstream Jewish organizations, including AIPAC, Jewish Federations of North America and American Jewish Committee were also critical.
On the right, the Republican Jewish Coalition, the Zionist Organization of America, American Jewish Congress and Young Israel supported the decision. The Conference of Presidents, an umbrella group of Jewish organizations, voiced “reservations” without criticizing the ban.
Then, late last week, Israel announced it would permit a visit from Tlaib on “humanitarian grounds” so that she could visit her aging grandmother – only for Tlaib to decide she wasn’t coming after all.
Had Tlaib and Omar made the trip, they would almost certainly have been critical of Israel, but that could have been easily managed. Instead, Israel now has a public relations fiasco that could have lasting and disquieting repercussions.
Israel’s first response to the trip made sense. Members of the U.S. Congress, regardless of their political views, should be welcomed to visit the Jewish state. That’s part of the price for America’s decades-long bipartisan support for Israel. Netanyahu’s abrupt about-face leaves us and many others wondering what he was thinking.