“I admire your intellect, I admire your passion, and I admire your concern for so many other people,” Biden said Tuesday. “And God, thank you for being a fighter.”
Biden’s words, and the images of the two from that day sent an unmistakable message that a congresswoman known largely since her 2018 election for her blunt criticism of Israel and her early call to “impeach the motherf-----” in reference to then-President Donald Trump had suddenly gained political relevance in a fast-changing U.S. political debate about the Middle East.
Tlaib, 44, had been an outlier in her party and Congress more broadly regarding Israel. She has supported the boycott, divestment and sanction movement to punish Israel for its treatment of Palestinians. And she has embraced a “one-state solution” that would combine Israel and the occupied territories into one democratic country with the potential to create a majority-Palestinian population rather than a Jewish state.
The liberal pro-Israel group J Street rescinded its endorsement of her in 2018 because she refused to “publicly express unequivocal support” for a “two-state solution,” the position espoused by Biden and many from both parties in which a Palestinian state would be created and coexist with Israel.
But in the 11 days of intensifying conflict between Israel and Hamas leading to Thursday’s announcement of a cease-fire, growing numbers of Democrats have shown a greater willingness to challenge Israel — including publicly pressing Biden to take a more aggressive posture toward Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Tlaib has not won support from her colleagues for a one-state solution, but the fact that Biden, a longtime pro-Israel hawk, was willing to grant an audience to one of Israel’s most prominent U.S. critics demonstrated the emerging clout of Democrats seeking to upend the status quo on U.S. policy in the region.
“Joe Biden was compassionate and listening, and Rashida almost burst into tears because she was so touched by it,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), who witnessed the tarmac exchange.
The next day, Biden, who had appeared reluctant to publicly pressure the Netanyahu government, told the prime minister that he expected a “significant de-escalation today on the path to a cease-fire,” according to the White House. The cease-fire, approved by Israel’s security cabinet late Thursday, was expected to take effect early Friday.
Tlaib declined to be interviewed for this story, but her spokesman, Denzel McCampbell, said the airport encounter was the first time in this presidency that Biden and Tlaib have talked.
“It was an important conversation for her to have,” McCampbell said. “The world is watching, and this is a situation where you talk about life and death.”
A Tlaib aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe a private conversation, said that Tlaib’s message to Biden was that “Palestinian human rights are not bargaining chips,” that the current approach “is not working” and that White House policy should be changed.
Deputy White House press secretary Andrew Bates, asked about the impact of Tlaib’s conversation on Biden’s policy, responded: “The president’s approach is informed by American national security interests, the facts on the ground and his long-standing convictions — not domestic political considerations.”
A White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters, distanced Biden from Tlaib’s specific policy proposals and portrayed the president’s praise of her in personal terms and concern for her family in the West Bank.
The recent turn of events has helped give Tlaib a prominent role in Democratic discussions of Middle East policy, even as she has aimed her rhetorical fire at members of her own party. She said on MSNBC on Monday that the White House had essentially ignored her until the latest conflict began.
“They are engaging me now, finally, after four months of me sending letters, with colleagues, talking about home demolitions, talking about the attack on Palestinians living in Israel,” Tlaib said.
Republicans accused Biden of abandoning Israel and aligning himself with figures such as Tlaib who they said symbolize the Democratic Party’s shifting views on Israel.
“I am stunned that politics today has reached a point where a president can praise someone who holds such radical views. And there’s really very little backlash to the president from his own party,” said Ari Fleischer, a White House press secretary under President George W. Bush and now a board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Tlaib, the eldest of 14 children of Palestinian immigrants, was born in Detroit and became a lawyer. After interning with a local politician and working with the Obama campaign, she was elected in 2008 to the Michigan House of Representatives, where she was a member until 2014. She lost a bid for the Michigan Senate and then won the U.S. House seat vacated by John Conyers Jr. (D).
A member of the Democratic Socialists of America, she joined the informal group of liberal members of Congress that became known as “the squad” and embraced a number of polarizing ideas. She tweeted that “policing in our country is inherently & intentionally racist. . . . No more policing, incarceration, and militarization. It can’t be reformed.” Police officials condemned the statement.
Along with other squad members, Tlaib was a frequent target of Trump, who claimed that she “hates Israel and all Jewish people.”
In 2019, when Tlaib planned to visit relatives on the West Bank, Israel took the extraordinary step of denying her entry into the country. That led to criticism of Israel even by some conservative Jewish groups that otherwise had condemned Tlaib’s views. Democrats rallied around her, saying that Trump was behind the effort to bar her. Netanyahu then said Israel would let Tlaib visit “on the condition that she pledges not to act to promote boycotts against Israel during her visit.” Tlaib refused to accept the condition and did not go.
Tlaib backed a fellow Democratic socialist, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), in the 2020 presidential primaries, but she vowed to turn out her district for Biden as Michigan again proved pivotal in the general election.
When Jill Biden campaigned in Michigan in October, Tlaib was in the audience when the future first lady said that the Arab American vote was crucial in the state. “You will all have a seat at the table. . . . We can’t do it without you,” she said.
As the latest conflict played out, with rockets launched from Gaza and Israel, Tlaib took to the House floor last week, summarizing what has been her message for years.
“I am a reminder to colleagues that Palestinians do, indeed, exist, that we are human, that we are allowed to dream,” she said. “We are mothers, daughters, granddaughters. We are justice seekers and are unapologetic about our fight against oppressions of all forms. Colleagues, Palestinians aren’t going anywhere, no matter how much money you send to Israel’s apartheid government.”
Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), who also has criticized U.S. policy on Israel, said that Tlaib’s career had been building up to her House speech and the meeting with Biden at the airport.
“This is her moment,” McCollum said. “She speaks a perspective that most members of Congress, most people in the United States, don’t hear.” Still, McCollum said that when Tlaib asked her to support a one-state solution, she declined on grounds that that was a decision for the parties in the Middle East. “She said, ‘I get it,’ ” McCollum said.
A day after Tlaib’s meeting with Biden, Tlaib co-sponsored legislation to block the administration’s $735 million sale of U.S.-made weapons to Israel. The legislation, while not likely to pass anytime soon, has exposed cracks in Democratic support for such sales because of concerns that the United States is providing weapons that could be used against Palestinian civilians.
A Gallup poll found that support among Democrats for putting pressure on Israel to resolve the conflict with Palestinians in the occupied territories had risen from 33 percent in 2008 to 53 percent in February of this year. Republican support for pressuring Israel was unchanged during that period at 17 percent.
Peter Beinart, a Jewish author who has spoken with Tlaib about their shared support for a one-state solution, said he thinks her views will be more accepted by Democrats.
“I really deeply admire her. And as someone who lives in the Jewish community, I find it extremely painful and sad to see how constantly people who I know consider her to be and call her anti-Semitic,” Beinart said. “To me, it’s appalling, because she actually radiates a deep belief in the basic humanity of all people. And she’s done so at a tremendous, tremendous cost.”
Halie Soifer, chief executive of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, said that while Tlaib “does bring a degree of identity politics to this very complicated set of issues, her views with regard to Israel are outside the mainstream of the Democratic Party . . . Americans, overwhelmingly. Jewish Americans and Democrats support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and support U.S. military aid to Israel.”
Tlaib has spent the last several days talking privately with her colleagues about the conflict and her legislation to block U.S. arms to Israel, expressing her views in Twitter postings. She wrote, without citing any fellow member by name, that many more want to support her than are willing to say publicly.
“If my colleagues even mention Palestinians deserving human rights, they are aggressively bullied by those who prefer Israel as it is: apartheid, oppression, occupation and all,” Tlaib wrote. “My message to you all is this: do not be afraid to stand for justice. The American people are with us.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.