Democrats watch their words as Israel bars congresswomen

Michael F. Brown 16 August 2019
Israel on Friday agreed to a request from Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib to visit her elderly grandmother and other relatives in the occupied West Bank.

Occupation authorities made the “humanitarian” gesture after Tlaib wrote a letter to interior minister Aryeh Deri vowing to “respect any restrictions” and promising she “will not promote boycotts against Israel during my visit.”
Amid criticism from Palestinians and others, Tlaib then appears to have made an about turn.
Despite her earlier request to Israel, she announced on Friday that she had decided against “visiting my grandmother under these oppressive conditions.”
This came a day after a political furor over Israel banning Tlaib and fellow Democrat Ilhan Omar of Minnesota – the first two Muslim women in the US Congress – from participating in a delegation to the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
Whether intentional or not, Tlaib has likely thrown Israel a rescue rope with her confused and shifting position: The criticism Israel faced over banning her may well morph into praise for its alleged generosity.
Israel can now claim it made a “humanitarian” offer to Tlaib, who is refusing to accept what she herself requested.
Possibly lost for her colleagues will be the limitations Israel insisted upon imposing on her speech rights and how Israel similarly limits the freedom and rights of all Palestinians.
Trump’s machinations
The situation came to a boiling point Thursday morning when President Donald Trump renewed his vitriolic attacks on the pair when he declared that “it would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep. Tlaib to visit.”
He claimed that “they hate Israel and all Jewish people.”
There is not an iota of evidence that they hate Jewish people. It is the case that they disagree profoundly with discriminatory Israeli policies.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu issued his own statement defending the action against the two increasingly prominent members of the Democratic Party.
“As a vibrant and free democracy, Israel is open to any critic and criticism, with one exception: Israeli law prohibits the entry of people whose perception harms the country.”
Israel is, in other words, a democracy except in how it treats Palestinians and what it will permit to be seen of their lives.
Israel passed a law in 2017 that bars entry to non-Israelis who support the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement – as both congresswomen do.
While much media coverage did mention this law, few noted that since its establishment in 1948, Israel has barred millions of exiled Palestinians from entering their homeland – regardless of their views and humanitarian crises in their families – solely because they are not Jews.
Rather than backing up the authority and prestige of the United States Congress, David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel, asserted that his government “supports and respects” the Israeli decision to bar entry to elected representatives of the American people.
Friedman also asserted that BDS is not free speech – disregarding old and new court rulings to the contrary.
He also claimed that their planned trip represented nothing more than “an effort to fuel the BDS engine.”
The block on their movement highlighted for observers, including Ayman Mohyeldin on MSNBC, that Israel remains an occupying power able to ban even members of Congress from entering the West Bank.
Mohyeldin said that “the agony and plight of every American of Palestinian descent” was visible in a statement from Democratic House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.
Hoyer had expressed appreciation to Israel that Tlaib might be permitted to visit her family in the West Bank.
In the face of the arm-in-arm racism of Trump and Netanyahu, this is no time for diplomatic expressions of appreciation.
Hoyer would have been better advised to stick to his criticism of Israel for blocking the full trip as “unwarranted and self-destructive.”
Democrats divided over Israel
Hoyer’s view was typical of how mainstream Democrats tried to balance criticism with professions of admiration and concern for Israel rather than Palestinians.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the most senior elected Democrat, declared that “As one who loves Israel, I am deeply saddened by the news that Israel has decided to prevent members of Congress from entering the country.”
“Israel’s denial of entry to congresswomen Tlaib and Omar is a sign of weakness, and beneath the dignity of the great State of Israel,” Pelosi asserted.
She added that Trump’s statements about the congresswomen “are a sign of ignorance and disrespect, and beneath the dignity of the Office of the President.”
Such statements leavened with copious praise highlight the sharpening divide among Democrats over whether Israel should be confronted about human rights violations.
In sharp contrast, Minnesota Democrat Betty McCollum declared that Trump and Netanyahu were afraid to allow the lawmakers to “witness first-hand the brutality and dehumanization Israel’s occupation inflicts on the Palestinian people.”
New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez condemned Israel’s “discriminatory decision” to ban her fellow members of the progressive “squad.”
She also announced she would not herself visit Israel “until all members of Congress are allowed.”
Stacey Plaskett, the nonvoting member of Congress for the US Virgin Islands, canceled her trip to Israel and the occupied West Bank, which she was planning to take along with Tlaib and Omar.
More than 40 Democrats visited Israel this month with the American Israel Education Foundation, a cut-out of the Israel lobby group AIPAC.
Will they refuse future visits and urge incoming members of Congress to reject Israeli apartheid and discrimination against their colleagues? In the current political climate, such basic solidarity is sadly unlikely.
But some advocates for change are speaking out.
Senator Bernie Sanders, the leading progressive in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, told MSNBC that “If Israel doesn’t want members of the United States Congress to visit their country … maybe they can respectfully decline the billions of dollars that we give to Israel.”
Sanders’ foreign policy adviser Matt Duss – himself a long-time critic of BDS – accused Democrats of having a hand in Israel’s ban on Tlaib and Omar.
“Every Democrat who helped pretend that BDS is a threat requiring congressional condemnation owns a piece of this,” he tweeted.
But frank criticism remains rare.
Senator Elizabeth Warren, another leading progressive running for president, tweeted mildly that “Israel doesn’t advance its case as a tolerant democracy or unwavering US ally by barring elected members of Congress from visiting because of their political views.”
Warren has previously run from questions about Palestine.
Many more, like New Jersey Democrat Josh Gottheimer, focused on how the decision to block the trip undermines the US-Israel relationship.
On MSNBC, he spoke of all the supposed benefits of that relationship while patronizingly declaring that he disagreed with the congresswomen’s planned itinerary because it was too focused on Palestinians, rather than being a standard propaganda tour.
California Democrat Ted Lieu asserted that “the long-term security of Israel relies on bipartisan congressional support,” and “barring members of Congress from visiting Israel damages US-Israel relations.”
This represents a profound refusal to see the larger picture of the subjugation faced by Palestinians.
Such criticisms are hardly courageous when even AIPAC publicly disagreed with the decision to bar Tlaib and Omar from visiting “our democratic ally Israel.”
Deflecting to Netanyahu
Recently, pro-Israel Democrats feeling the heat from an increasingly pro-Palestinian party base, have focused their criticism on Netanyahu, rather than on Israel’s anti-Palestinian policies more broadly.
Criticizing Netanyahu, a far-right figure closely aligned with the bigoted Donald Trump, is now seen as relatively safe even for the likes of House Speaker Pelosi.
Even Sanders has been doing this.
But the days and months ahead will tell whether it is the critics of Netanyahu or those willing to make a more profound critique of Israel’s policies who are ascendent within the Democratic Party.
Elected officials will undoubtedly continue to feel the heat from grassroots solidarity organizations, including CodePink, Jewish Voice for Peace and Palestinian groups that condemned Israel’s action in forthright terms.
Democrats must not simply see the ban as the problem, but as a small part of a much bigger picture: military occupation and Israel’s violent denial of equal rights to millions of Palestinians.
Every few months there seems to be a new opportunity for congressional Democrats to move forward in their grasp of on-the-ground realities faced by Palestinians.
Will they continue to sidestep grassroot activists’ demands to hold Israel accountable with more than just a few mild words?