WASHINGTON – In the hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bowed down to pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday and reversed his own decision to allow Democratic congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar to enter Israel, something unprecedented happened.
One after the other, leading pro-Israel organizations, politicians and activists in the United States published statements against Netanyahu’s decision.
The criticism came from both Democrats and Republicans, and even from the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC, which usually adheres to a policy of never criticizing the Israeli government.
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Netanyahu’s decision was described by critics as an error in judgement that will cause damage to Israel’s standing with the Democratic Party and harm the country’s image in the eyes of millions of Americans. There was also another concern, which many of the critics didn’t express publicly – that Netanyahu’s decision will provide Omar and Tlaib a feat they never could have imagined in terms of media coverage. Their non-visit dominated the news cycle over the weekend and by Monday the two were on prime time television talking about BDS and the occupation.
Or as one official in a pro-Israel organization told Haaretz: “This wasn’t going to be a front-page story in most American newspapers before Trump and Bibi did what they did on Thursday.”
For Israel, the expansive coverage awarded to Tlaib and Omar came at an especially heavy price. Israel’s objective when it comes to its relationship with the Democratic Party is to see Omar and Tlaib isolated in their approach to Israel. They are the only members of Congress who have expressed their support, on record, for the boycott, sanctions and divestment movement (BDS). They have made statements on U.S. support for Israel, such as Omar’s infamous “all about the Benjamins” quote, that very few of their Democratic colleagues could defend or support.
A week before the two lawmakers’ aborted trip, 41 Democratic members of Congress visited Israel on a delegation led by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. This group included more than half of the Democrats who were first elected to Congress in the “blue wave” of 2018. Many of the party’s most impressive candidates, who managed to win tough races in districts that Trump won two years earlier, were on that trip.
These politicians represent the party’s approach to Israel – support for the U.S.-Israel alliance, but not for Netanyahu’s right-wing agenda – more than Omar and Tlaib, both of whom represent non-competitive districts where Democrats face no challenge from Republicans. This was evident not just in the large number of participants on the trip, but also in the recent vote to denounce the BDS movement, in which 90 percent of Democrats voted in favor of the resolution, and only 16 (including Omar and Tlaib) voted against it.
Israel’s interest in navigating this saga was to highlight the visit to the country by the 41 Democrats (whose trip was organized by the America Israel Education Fund, an organization affiliated with AIPAC), and to diminish the importance of Omar and Tlaib’s visit. Israeli diplomats in the U.S. had prepared “talking points” which stressed that 41 is a lot more than two, and pro-Israeli organizations were also ready to criticize American media for giving much more coverage to a small trip by two members of Congress who represent a minority within their own party, than to a large trip that included much of the party’s current – and future – leadership.
But all of that became irrelevant on Thursday, when Trump tweeted that Israel should not allow Omar and Tlaib to enter the country. The Israeli strategy of trying to minimize the attention given to the congresswomen, and of presenting them as fringe politicians isolated within their own party, was blown apart by a few words Trump disseminated in a tweet. Omar and Tlaib immediately became the biggest news story of the day, and after Netanyahu capitulated to Trump, the entire Democratic Party – and even some influential Republicans – came to their defense.
For Trump, all of this was great news. He has been trying for months, ever since his party lost control of the House in November, to describe Omar and Tlaib as the “face of the Democratic Party.” Trump has repeated this phrase dozens of times, and every time Omar or Tlaib make controversial statements related to Israel, BDS and the Jewish community, Trump and other Republicans rush to capitalize on it and push forward their “face of the party” message.
While Israel’s interest is to make the argument that Omar and Tlaib don’t truly represent the Democratic Party’s views, Trump’s interest is to do the opposite. If it were up to him, he would probably want their names to appear in headlines every day between now and November 2020. Trump’s political strategists probably have no illusion about their inability to win anything close to a majority of the Jewish vote in next year’s election; but if they can simply get a decent level of support among, for example, Jewish retirees in the swing-state of Florida, that by itself could help Trump’s re-election.
An increased media focus on Omar and Tlaib will be far from a good service for Israel, which has no interest in tens of millions of Americans being exposed to prominent supporters of the BDS movement. It’s very likely that just over the past several days, millions of Americans who had never previously heard of BDS or devoted much thought to the Israeli occupation, suddenly found these issues dominating the headlines. For that, Netanyahu can thank Trump’s re-election campaign.
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