Analysis

Tlaib and Omar’s Planned West Bank Trip Embroils Israel in Trump’s Battle With ‘The Squad'

Netanyahu's decision to allow the congresswomen entry into the country shines spotlight on Israeli 'travel ban' on BDS activists

Omar Tlaib and Ilhan Omar (L) and Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu (R).
SAUL LOEB / AFP, AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

There’s bad news for American Jews who are already deeply uncomfortable with the fact that Israel is playing a role in the confrontation between progressive congresswomen known as "The Squad" and U.S. President Donald Trump. Things don’t look like they are going to get any better, in what is shaping up to be a long, hot summer.

Trump has turned the Jewish community into a political football with his repeated characterization of the group of four congresswomen - particularly Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar – as anti-Semites who hate Israel. The charge is echoed by Trump’s allies and defenders in the Republican Party seeking to deflect the charge that Trump himself is a racist.

Posturing as a defender of Israel is a message that appeals to right-wing pro-Israel evangelical voters while deliberately pushing a sensitive button that undermines unity in the Democratic Party. In Trump’s now-infamous North Carolina rally, he singled out Omar - pointing to her “history of launching vicious anti-Semitic screeds” and accusing her of hating both America and Israel. His supporters in return chanted “send her back,” echoed the message of his tweet earlier in the week, telling members of "The Squad" to “go back” where they came from. 

>> Read more: Trump's 'go home' invective echoes Nazi incitement against Jews | Analysis ■ Who Trump is really wooing with his tweets about Israel and anti-Semitism

At the same time that all this was playing out, the groundwork was being laid for a new confrontation - one that will take place in Israel. Omar revealed midweek that she had introduced a bill in Congress opposing “unconstitutional legislative efforts to limit the use of boycotts to further civil rights at home and abroad," pushing back against anti-BDS legislation that was poised for a vote. Her bill was widely applauded by the Palestinian boycott, sanctions and divestment movement. 

On the same day Omar told a journalist that she planned to be in Israel and the West Bank “within the next few weeks” – in her words, to learn about the "occupation." She will presumably be joining "Squad" fellow Rashida Tlaib.  

Travel ban

For more than three years, Netanyahu’s government has vigorously pursued a policy of barring BDS activists from the country. Dissatisfied with existing laws that gave wide latitude to authorities to deny entry to those it deemed unacceptable, legislation was created to make the policy explicit. The “travel ban” law was passed in March 2017, banning the entry of any person “who knowingly issues a public call for boycotting Israel that, given the content of the call and the circumstances in which it was issued, has a reasonable possibility of leading to the imposition of a boycott – if the issuer was aware of this possibility.”

Over the past few years, the government has used these powers on multiple occasions to refuse entry to a variety of people, even compiling a formal blacklist of organizations whose leaders would be barred from coming to Israel or the West Bank.

Whether or not Omar and Tlaib would be allowed entry into Israel and the West Bank would be determined by no less than Prime Minister Netanyahu, Haaretz reported on Thursday. And on Friday, Israeli Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer said the two congresswomen will be allowed entry, "out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America."

Do Tlaib and Omar qualify to be barred under Israeli law? Tlaib has gone on record as supporting BDS, telling the Intercept “I personally support the BDS movement,” saying that boycotting draws attention to “issues like the racism and the international human rights violations by Israel right now.” Omar said that she believed in and supported the BDS movement, shortly after she was elected to Congress last year.

These statements alone might not have been seen as “a public call for boycotting Israel” which “has a reasonable possibility of leading to the imposition of a boycott."

But in light of the new House bill, one could argue that they have moved from merely verbally supporting BDS to taking action that will make boycotting possible and help block legislation that would prevent it. 

Yad Vashem

The timing is deeply charged for the Israeli leader. When the two congresswomen arrive “in a few weeks” the Israeli prime minister will be less than a month away from the fateful September 17 national election, where he is fighting to win a fifth term as leader. 

Currently, Netanyahu’s political prospects are worrisome, with polls suggesting that he may fail to assemble a ruling coalition, just as he failed to do so after last April’s elections.

Some of Trump’s supporters in Israel - including the leader of Republicans Abroad in Israel - urged Netanyahu to refuse Tlaib and Omar entry. That would have won him much-needed support on his right flank, while scoring points with President Donald Trump.

But to forbid any members of the U.S. Congress - let alone the first two Muslim women ever to serve - would have been unprecedented. It would have been a wrecking ball to bipartisan support of Israel, further alienating the bulk of U.S. Jewry, who identify as Democrats. In addition to the diplomatic ramifications, Netanyahu would also be denying the first Palestinian-American woman congresswoman the ability to visit her grandmother and her family in the West Bank, a move which would play into the hands of those who wish to paint Israel as a heartless violator of human rights.

Netanyahu could instead turn the tables by rolling out the welcome mat and inviting them to meet with him, offering to bring them to Yad Vashem to heighten their sensitivity to the Holocaust. If they refuse, he can score points as being on the side interested in dialogue and reconciliation.  

Hot summer

The precise dates and circumstances of the upcoming visits are still unclear. Tlaib had originally envisioned her trip as a large-scale congressional visit, painting it as an alternative to the major AIPAC trips to Israel for freshmen congressmen during the August recess. This year’s trip for Democrats, led by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, is set to arrive in the first week of August. The Republican delegation is set to arrive a week later.   

Last December, Tlaib excitedly unveiled plans for her alternative congressional delegation, which she hoped would enable her colleagues “to see that segregation and how that has really harmed us being able to achieve real peace in that region,” asserting that she doesn’t believe “AIPAC provides a real, fair lens into this issue. It’s one-sided.” The Israel lobby’s “lavish trips to Israel,” she said, “don’t show the side that I know is real, which is what’s happening to my grandmother and what’s happening to my family there.”

As of last week, her plan appears to be in trouble as the group that was supposed to organize the trip announced it was dropping out, citing “scheduling conflicts."

But even if Tlaib and Omar do not travel as part of a “CODEL” - an official congressional delegation paid for by the federal government, they are free to visit as part of a private trip. 

Whether they come individually, together, joined by other members of the “squad” or beyond, they now know that they can come. Tlaib has already said that she is “really, really” excited to visit her family in the West Bank and that she plans to bring her sons along.