Israel Loses ‘Optics,’ Higher Ground in Recent Controversy

Last week, Israel was all over the news, in media outlets around the globe. Unfortunately, the story capturing the world’s attention was Israel’s abrupt decision to deny entry to Democratic Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. The resulting controversy provided a global platform for the congresswomen and cast Israel in a negative light.

Tlaib and Omar, both supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel — and whose past statements about Israel and Jews have received well-deserved condemnation — initially had Israel’s approval to visit Israel and the West Bank as part of a larger diplomatic contingent from the House of Representatives. 

That changed after President Donald Trump’s tweet last week telling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that allowing a visit by the pair of legislators would make Israel look “weak.” 

Israel seemingly couldn’t make up its mind how to respond. First, it withdrew invitations to both members of Congress. Then, it said Tlaib could visit her 90-year-old grandmother as a personal side trip. Tlaib added to the confusing back-and-forth by first accepting that invitation, then deciding against it.

The ensuing fallout has made no one look particularly diplomatic.

A number of staunchly pro-Israel Jewish groups, while condemning the anti-Israel views of Tlaib and Omar, voiced their strong criticism of Israel’s decision. Organizations including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the American Jewish Committee, National Council of Jewish Women and the Anti-Defamation League said the Netanyahu government was wrong to withdraw its permission for them to visit Israel. 

In St. Louis, Rori Picker Neiss, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, an umbrella organization of 19 local Jewish groups, framed the controversy in these terms:

“As news about Israel continues to unfold, what we must resist more than anything else is the urge to say that as Jews residing in America we should remain silent.

“Certainly, we should respect the voices of those living within the borders of Israel, those who are on the front lines of defending Israel’s safety and security, those whose very lives are at risk when Israel is under attack.

“Simultaneously, as American Jews, Israel is also a part of our story. And Israel’s relationship with the American government is a crucial part of our story…. Because none of these stories are simple and though we do not have the answers, we still bear a responsibility: to learn, to grapple, and most of all, to engage.”

Nancy Lisker, Regional Director of AJC St. Louis, said Israel “did not choose wisely,” in reversing its original approval of Tlaib and Omar’s visit.

“Our position emanates out of respect for the Congresswomen’s position as members of the House of Representatives, and despite their on-the-record, fierce endorsement of the BDS movement,” Lisker said. “AJC stands for a non-partisan approach to peace in the Middle East and we support direct, face-to-face negotiations conducive to a two-state solution. We should strive to put this delicate incident aside and continue to work towards peace with actors on both sides of the aisle.”

In a statement, AIPAC said, “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.”

Among Jewish groups that supported Israel’s decision were the Zionist Organization of America and the Republican Jewish Coalition.

It should be noted that Tlaib and Omar could have joined the bipartisan group of more than 70 of their congressional colleagues on a trip visiting Israeli sites and the Palestinian territories. The group sponsoring the trip Tlaib/Omar were planning to take is Miftah, a Palestinian NGO that is avowedly anti-Israel. A JTA report notes that the group supports the movement to boycott Israel, and it has also praised Palestinian suicide bombers in the past. Miftah’s trip itinerary pointedly omits naming Israel, using the term “Palestine,” for the entire area, thereby de-legitimizing Israel’s status as an independent Jewish state.  

However, Israel has every reason to think that its democratic government could withstand any unfair criticism. In its reversal last week, Israel handed an unfortunate PR victory to its critics and missed an opportunity to counter whatever negative propaganda that Omar and Tlaib might spread.