The problem arises from a recently passed law that would bar foreign nationals who support any boycott of Israel from receiving entry visas. This in and of itself was an infringement on the Israeli tradition of vigorous public debate, but with elections upcoming in September, Netanyahu is scrambling to ingratiate himself further with the far right. Before Wednesday, however, “Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer said the two congresswomen would be allowed to visit Israel ‘out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America.’” So much for that “respect.” (The Israeli embassy did not respond to a request for comment.)
The Post reported that “House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) took the issue up with Israeli officials on Wednesday on behalf of the Democratic leadership, but could not convince the government to let the lawmakers in.” Hoyer is among Israel’s most devoted friends in the U.S. Congress. To rebuff a direct plea from him would be extraordinary.
The ban is a stunning, unprecedented step, one that signals Israel, long a bastion of democracy in the Middle East, cannot tolerate criticism — even from nationals of its closest ally. For Netanyahu it sends the message that he is Trump’s puppet, willing to damage the long-term relationship with the United States to assuage the ego of a president who is in a political tailspin.
“This reversal is counterproductive to say the least and gives a victory to the BDS Movement. All Members of Congress would benefit from visiting Israel and seeing the diversity of the people and richness of the culture,” former head of the National Jewish Democratic Council Aaron Keyak told reporters. “This action also sets a dangerous precedent for the many other countries — many led by dictators and ruthless thugs — that U.S. elected officials visit.'” He adds that this is “a painful moment for those of us who care about a strong U.S.-Israel relationship and fight for the cause of peace.”
He was not alone, according to multiple sources. Heads of major Jewish organizations had been on the phone with the U.S. ambassador to Israel imploring Israel not to take this step. According to the leader of one such group, the leader’s group had been urging the Israeli government to stick by the original decision to let the congresswomen in, while being under no illusion about the congresswomen’s views. The potential political and reputational costs of not letting them in might be even higher than of letting them in, the leader acknowledged.
The decision to exclude them likely will, American Jewish leaders recognize, incite the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and create a further schism with Democrats in Congress. It will continue the process, exacerbated by Trump and Netanyahu, of making support for Israel a partisan issue, something both sides have long tried to avoid.
Publicly, these groups treaded carefully. David Harris, head of the American Jewish Committee, tweeted:
According to a source familiar with the Israeli government’s thinking, the Israelis objected to the congresswomen’s “one-sided” itinerary, which included multiple stops in the Palestinian territories even as the government was discouraging Israeli groups from meeting with them. If that’s the rationale, the Netanyahu government is more short-sighted and politically tone-deaf than we feared. Rather than trying to broaden the perspective of Israel’s critics, Netanyahu is pushing them into an evermore radical position.
UPDATE: In an exceptionally rare public statement and an ever more rare, albeit measured, criticism of Israel, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee issued a statement on Twitter: “We disagree with Reps. Omar and Tlaib’s support for the anti-Israel and anti-peace BDS movement, along with Rep. Tlaib’s calls for a one-state solution. We also believe every member of Congress should be able to visit and experience our democratic ally Israel firsthand.” When an Israeli prime minister has gone afoul of AIPAC, it is time to rethink what he is doing and its long-range implications for the U.S.-Israel relationship.