WASHINGTON, D.C. - U.S. Congress Democrats are debating as to how their party should handle Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib's now-banned Israel visit saga, 48 hours after it began. The party is split between members who want to keep the issue in the news cycle, and those who want to move on to other issues.
On Thursday, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backtracked on his initial decision to allow anti-Israel boycott proponents Omar and Tlaib enter the country, and announced – under public pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump – that they will not be allowed to enter Israel, the Democratic Party was united in its opposition to Netanyahu’s reversal and Trump’s blatant interference in internal Israeli affairs.
Even Democrats known for more conservative stances on Israel, such as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and former Senator Joe Lieberman, criticized Netanyahu's stance, as well as young left-wing lawmakers such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Democrats in the House of Representatives and in the Senate, from coastal states and from the Midwest, all spoke out against his decision.
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AIPAC, the most important pro-Israel lobbying group in the United States, issued a rare rebuke of the decision to keep the congresswomen out, a development that made it easier for Israel-supporting Democrats to speak out. Schumer’s statement against Netanyahu’s decision and AIPAC’s tweet on the subject came out within minutes of each other, highlighting how Netanyahu had managed to disappoint even Israel’s strongest backers in Washington.
But on Friday, things changed. Tlaib sent Israeli officials a letter agreeing to their offer to hold a “humanitarian visit” to the Palestinian village where her grandmother lives, and to refrain from promoting boycotts of Israel during her visit. Hours after the letter was leaked to the media by Israeli officials, Tlaib backtracked and announced she will not agree to visit under political restrictions.
This time, Democrats who released statements decrying the ban on Thursday, like Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, did not release new ones – likewise for presidential candidates like former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris. After their unusual reprimand the day before, AIPAC was quick to “commend” the Israeli government on Friday.
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One warning sign for Israel did come from Rep. Steny Hoyer, the Democratic Majority Leader in the House, who said that “to my knowledge, no Member of Congress has ever been asked to agree to preconditions in order to visit Israel,” and that Israel’s handling of Tlaib was “not only disrespectful of Rep. Tlaib but of the United States Congress as well.”
Hoyer said that he remains “deeply disappointed that the Israeli government reversed the policy announced by Ambassador Ron Dermer that ‘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.”
Hoyer’s continued criticism is significant; just last week, he proudly led a delegation of 41 Democratic members of Congress to Israel, in cooperation with an AIPAC-affiliated organization. During the visit, Hoyer highlighted the party’s support for the Jewish State and opposition to the BDS movement, and defended Netanyahu from accusations of racism. His anger over the Tlaib and Omar incident shows that even very strong supporters of Israel are feeling betrayed by the prime minister.
Apart from Hoyer, most of the criticism over Israel’s demands for Tlaib on Friday came from the more left-wing camp of the Democratic Party and progressive Jewish groups who are often critical of Israeli policy. Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and Rep. Ocasio-Cortez both suggested that members of Congress should not visit Israel until the country agrees to allow Omar and Tlaib into the country. Pocan tweeted that “no member of Congress should visit Israel until all members of Congress are welcome.”
Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who together with Omar, Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez is a member of "The Squad" of progressive congresswomen, wrote in a statement that the United States should “reevaluate” its relationship with Israel in light of Netanyahu’s decision. She did not elaborate on what the re-evaluation process should entail.
Senator Bernie Sanders, who is competing for the party’s presidential nomination in 2020, hinted in an interview to CNN that Netanyahu’s decision could impact U.S. aid to Israel in the future. Sanders has stated several times in recent months that he believes the U.S. should use its military aid to Israel as leverage.
Many Democratic elected officials believe that Trump is trying to keep Omar and Tlaib in the headlines as much as he can and for as long as he can, and they do not want to help him achieve that goal. Perhaps that is why on Friday night, despite a series of insulting tweets that Trump published against Tlaib in which he called her offer to visit and subsequent reversal "a complete setup," very few Democratic members of Congress responded. One of those who did react was Virginia Rep. Don Beyer, who called Trump “an exceptionally cruel person.”
On Friday night, McClatchy News reported that several House Democrats were debating whether to publish a specific denunciation of Israeli Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer, who originally stated that Tlaib and Omar would be allowed to enter Israel, and whether they should take any concrete steps against the U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, who published a statement in support of Netanyahu’s eventual decision to bar the lawmakers from entering the country. As of yet, no decisions have been made.
This represents a larger dilemma for the Democratic party. Taking action to highlight their anger over Netanyahu’s decision would play into Trump's media strategy, and keep the issue in the headlines for perhaps another week.
One senior Democratic staffer told Haaretz that while there is “a lot of anger” at Netanyahu and Dermer, some members believe it would be politically unwise to keep this story in the headlines. It takes up airtime at the expense of issues that are problematic for Trump and Republicans, such as gun control, Trump’s attempts to dismantle Obamacare and corruption within his administration.
The staffer added that “Trump and Netanyahu have totally politicized the U.S.-Israel relationship, and Democrats can today very easily condemn and criticize Netanyahu without losing any support from the Jewish community, where Netanyahu is deeply unpopular. But there is still a tactical question here: is it good for us to keep this specific story in the headlines right now?”