Analysis

Israel Presented Tlaib With a Cruel Dilemma: Her Principles or Her Family

Rashida Tlaib thwarted Israel's attempt to take credit for a special 'humanitarian gesture.' She may have paid a price as a granddaughter, but she also prevented a new precedent in Israel's boycott law

 Rashida Tlaib speaks at a press conference in Washington D.C., July 15, 2019.
AFP

Israel was too quick to celebrate Palestinian American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib's apparent agreement to send a humanitarian request to visit her elderly grandmother in the West Bank, alongside a commitment not to promote BDS and to "respect any restrictions" during the visit.

Perhaps it was the fact the humiliating letter was leaked to the press, or the enthusiastic announcement in the name of Israeli "official sources" that she "was forced to submit to the conditions that Israel placed in advance," or perhaps the political pressure at home – but Tlaib was quick to clarify that she would actually not accept restrictions Israel placed as a condition for her visit, even if it meant not seeing her 90-year-old grandmother - a heavy personal price.

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Thus, Tlaib foiled the Israeli government's efforts to flaunt a special "humanitarian gesture" to her, in an attempt to slightly soften the sharp criticism over the decision not to allow her and her fellow Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar into the country at the request of their political rival, U.S. President Donald Trump.

If she had chosen to visit under those limitations, many of those who are already particularly reluctant to fight the Netanyahu government beyond limp condemnations on Twitter could have clung to this. For example, the pro-Israel group AIPAC and members of the more conservative wing of the Democratic Party like Joe Biden, and certainly among Republicans like Marco Rubio, who spoke out on Thursday against barring the congresswomen – all could have, had she come, told themselves that half of the problem was solved "with a happy ending." They could have said that there was no need for a general paradigm shift regarding Israel. The Israelis who figured that the problem in the affair was mainly reputational, too, could have given a sigh of relief.

Now there are those whose conclusions from the drama will focus on the embarrassment caused to Netanyahu (and his ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer), who zigzagged and came out looking like Trump's puppet. Others will claim that all the politicians actually won, because they won the attention from which they feed.

All these are short-term conclusions that are just the tip of the iceberg. When you look at the history of Israel's control of the Palestinian territories, it must be remembered that the main issue is always the system and the everyday people who are affected by it, and not the politicians and their exploits. Implementation of the recently-passed law that allows those who support the boycott of Israel to be barred from entry is deepening and is shaped by every case and every precedent. Tlaib's surrender, with the explicit promise on official congressional stationary bearing her personal signature that she will "respect any restriction", would have constituted a tacit recognition of the law's conditions in a way that would have been used as a precedent in the cases to come, against political activists of Palestinian descent or others who do not enjoy Tlaib's elevated status. 

Muftia, the grandmother Tlaib, in front of her house in the village of Beit Ur Al-Fauqa in the West Bank, August 16, 2019.
Mohamad Torokman /Reuters

Until now, many of those denied entry refused to publish in advance a formal declaration agreeing to every Israeli condition and limitation to their freedom of expression before landing. Lara Alqasem – although her situation was quite different – decided to fight for her student visa in every court. In a more difficult situation, at one stage she was urged to publicly send a letter to Public SecurityMinister Gilad Erdan, saying she opposed the boycott movement. Although the conditions of Lara Alqasem's visa did include the restriction that she will not publicly support boycotting Israel, and in her trial she also declared that she was not a major activist in the movement, she chose not to write this statement requested by Erdan as a shortcut in her fight, but rather continued on to the Supreme Court.

So Talib, if chosen to arrive under such a commitment in advance, would have confirmed what Israel seeks to establish as fact: Palestinians and their descendants can also be required to adhere to political restrictions when they come to visit relatives in the West Bank, and that entry to the Palestinian Authority's territories is a privilege, not a right.

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Instead of an official visit, as a powerful member of U.S. congress, with the immunity to say anything she wants about reality as she sees it, Tlaib was asked to plead as the descendant of Palestinians, a private citizen, for the goodwill of the authorities in Israel to allow her to see relatives while agreeing to political censorship. Israel, then, put Tlaib to a particularly cruel test: principles or family.

In addition to all this, a decision by Tlaib to arrive by herself would have also been seen as a lack of solidarity toward her colleague, Omar, who is still barred from entering due to her lack of an elderly grandmother in the territories or willingness to give up her freedom of political expression.

It's possible that Tlaib first sent the humanitarian request because it was truly more important to her to see her elderly grandmother for the last time at any price. Or perhaps at first she or those around her simply thought the conditions were mere words that wouldn't be enforced anyway, and then regretted it because of criticism. After all, what would Israel have done if Tlaib had promoted a boycott during her visit? Would soldiers have dragged her into detention? A member of congress, before the whole world? And what if she had promoted a boycott later, after returning to the U.S.?

Either way, the decision not to come has for now prevented the creation of a new precedent in the implementation of the boycott law: a formal declaration ahead of time as a condition for a visa. Tlaib the granddaughter lost, Tlaib the politician won, and the system will now continue on to the next case.